Why Don’t Democratic Presidential Candidates Talk about Charter Schools?

I was chatting with a group of women last month about the presidential race. All of these women identify as Democrats, and all of them are eager to off-load the current resident of the White House.  We meet monthly, to discuss a current topic, and lately, have closed our gathering by checking in with our current favorites among the candidates. Cory Booker’s name came up.

There was admiration for his smooth, polished presence and rhetoric at debates and on news shows. He was doing well in the debates—and maybe could stand up to Trump, make him look foolish. I interrupted the happy talk: His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools. He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.

I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces. One voice spoke up: So? Why is that so bad?

And then I realized. These women—lovely, principled, left-leaning women—haven’t been fighting the education policy wars for years. One has a grandchild in a charter school.  They want good schools for all kids, but they’re agnostic about alternate school governance. Even a local charter founder spending 41 months in federal prison for tax evasion, having improperly handling millions of public dollars in his quest to establish a lucrative charter chain, didn’t really have much of an impact. That school remains open, drawing over 1000 students from local public districts.

Me? I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then they go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts.  There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a “right” to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.

So—no, I cannot be agnostic. In the end, I’d like to see charter schools go away, one at a time, forever, because mountains of evidence have proven that they’re ripe for fraud and malpractice, and because there are far better public-school options, in every city and neighborhood. I think that’s preferable to trying to extinguish or ban charter schools outright—although ending all federal financial support for charters is Step One. That will necessitate a new Secretary of Education. The rest will mean changing hearts and minds—a long, slow process.

Which is why I’m not surprised that most Democratic candidates have not made bold proclamations about charter schools. In the Democratic debate Thursday night, Andrew Yang—a long-time, vocal charter supporter– was the first candidate to field a question about charter schools, a barbed inquiry that also incorporated Yang’s negative comments about teacher unions.

Yang dissembled with a series of talking points all viewers are likely to agree with—we need to pay teachers more and stop focusing on standardized tests, blah blah. When the question was tossed to Booker, he—surprise!—did the same, burying his long-time pro-charter viewpoints under a flurry of unsubstantiated claims of amazing, transformative success in Newark—his own personal fake news.

Aside from Julien Castro’s remark that charter schools were not better than public schools, a truth that a fair segment of America does not recognize, having been subject to media campaigns saying just the opposite, the rest of the candidates steered clear of the charter question. Lots of them said the right stuff about education, from pre-school and HBCUs, to teacher pay and college loans. But even Bernie Sanders, whose comprehensive platform is openly anti-charter, was mum on charters.

I know why we’re not hearing a lot about charters. Approximately six percent of American schoolchildren attend charter schools. It’s not just Betsy DeVos who’s cheerleading for charters—the Obama administration was charter-friendly. Charter school parents are voters. Charter school policies are made at the state level, and unlike Donald Trump, most Democratic candidates seem to have a clear grasp of the idea that they can’t shut down charter schools, en masse, with a stroke of their Sharpie, should they become President.

For many progressive-side parents, charter schools are a fringe issue. They might live in a state where there aren’t enough charters to change the public-school ecology. Or—they know a family that’s happy with their charter school. Or they’re laboring under the decades-old illusion that schools are locally controlled, and nothing will ever happen to destabilize their public school system.

Asked why they send their children to a charter school, parents in my town talked about things like the young, enthusiastic teachers, the brand-new building, and—uniforms.

Charter teachers are young because there’s a great deal of turnover there; spanking new graduates often can’t get jobs in public schools because staff and programs are being cut, so they turn to charters for employment. That impressive new charter building is entangled in financial malfeasance (with my tax money).  And why aren’t parents more interested in the curriculum, programming and school climate, rather than plaid jumpers and polo shirts? Who knows.

Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US military. Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there. Pick a new school! It’s the American way.

Education is my issue, but charters are a mere slice of a bigger pie. It was gratifying to simply hear candidates talk about education on the stage. Here’s what I would like to hear from a candidate:

Let’s invest more in fully public education—the kind that’s community-based and has elected oversight. Let’s acknowledge the places where it has crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them. Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals.

Did I try to change the minds of my friends? Yes, of course. I told them that Cory Booker palled around with Betsy DeVos. They’re long-time Michiganders, and that was all it took.

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About That School with the Shooter-Resistant Curved Walls

It’s been all over the news—state and national—recently: Fruitport Community Schools, in Muskegon, Michigan are building a new, state-of-the-art high school addition and revamp, designed to thwart an active shooter. There are curved hallways, and ‘wings’ (protrusions with no structural purpose) to disrupt sight-lines. There are hidey-holes all over the place, in halls and classrooms, special impact-resistant glass, and deluxe alarm and lockdown systems. You can do a walk-through with Kate Snow and the school district’s superintendent, Bob Szymoniak, here.

Feedback on this has generally been negative— a ‘What is this world coming to?’ response. The sub-head in the Daily Mail reads:  School officials in Fruitport, Michigan, spent $48 million to make sure the school would provide greater safety in a catastrophe.

But that’s not precisely true. Voters in the Fruitport district had to approve a tax bond issue for that $48 million—and in Michigan, bond issue money can only be used for buildings and equipment. If schools want to improve staffing, instruction or curriculum or offer special courses, they can only use the state-provided per-pupil grants. (Michigan uses a complex and unusual formula to fund schools, not based on property taxes.)

Michigan also offers district-to-district school choice. If a school in Muskegon wants to offer something special to act as magnet, to bring students outside Fruitport boundaries to that particular school (and capture more per-pupil grants), their options are limited to things that can be bonded by taxpayer vote.

The people of Fruitport voted yes on a $51 million bond issue in 2016 by 180 votes out of 9100 cast, the slimmest of margins. There were failing bond issues in previous years—and the school genuinely needed to add space, update all the buildings in the district and replace buses.

Perhaps the headline should read: School officials spent $48 million on better schools for Fruitport students, including many innovative safety features that other schools don’t have. Subtext: So, if you’re shopping for a super-safe school in these times, if that’s your bottom line, why not send your high school student to Fruitport?

I should mention that I am familiar with this district. Children I love go to school there. I have been treated to their first days of school, last week, via photos and videos. They are happy campers. Their parents, who also attended Fruitport schools, are happy that there’s a new(ish) high school for their little ones, down the road. They are happy that the bond issue passed, finally. Strong communities are built when people pitch in and agree to invest in children.

I see the Superintendent acting as a kind of carnival barker, whether he likes this part of his job or not. I’m sure it can’t be comfortable to advertise your school as where parents want their kids to be, should an active shooter come to town. I would like to think that any school superintendent would rather be promoting the outstanding drama or music program, the elementary libraries and playgrounds, the 15:1 teacher-student ratio. But those things are dependent on operational monies.

School superintendents tend to be evaluated in the long-term not by program enrichment, however, but by tangible results: buildings built, money saved, test scores. When my school opened a new building, the superintendent spent the whole first year doing what Szymoniak did: showing off its innovative features in a series of tours. He saw it as his legacy.

There are things about this flurry of attention that really bother me. The first is that anyone who actually did want to go on a rampage at Fruitport HS has now been given a floorplan and a visual tour of exactly where students might be hiding. It’s worth remembering that Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland, FL had a new security system, armed guards and practice drills, and the students at Sandy Hook lost their lives when the school secretary recognized the shooter and let him in. Both of those killers knew the buildings where the carnage happened.

The second thing is that eliminating clear sight lines makes hallway supervision—a job that falls to teachers and school leaders—far more difficult. Ask any teacher to tell you where students looking for a bit of illicit privacy congregate—that dark stairwell, the science supply closet, the cornfields behind the football stadium.

In the brand-new school where I taught, architects dedicated a large chunk of square footage to a ‘kiva’—a large, circular, open space in the center of the building that had no specific instructional purpose. It was cool looking, but teachers had to get into the center of the room to see who was in there. The staff quickly started calling it ‘Plaza del Tardy.’ But it was the first place that visitors to the new building were taken.

In every article and video about Fruitport HS—and there are dozens—someone says something like ‘You can’t prevent a school shooting with building design, but…’ But perhaps we can save a few lives. Perhaps we can give students a few more seconds to find safety. Perhaps we can reduce harm. Nobody talks about personal relationships or times when a courageous staff member steps forward to talk down a shooter.

In fact, the Fruitport superintendent says this: “Until we can figure out how to stop this (shootings in schools), we’ve got to do something.”  

Perhaps the answer to that dilemma is hiding in plain sight.

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Parents Organize Online to Pressure Schools and Get Rid of Bad Teachers

So there it was, right out in the Twitter open:
Public school parents et al: What if we could use a site like Blind to chat anonymously with other parents at our kids’ school, share concerns and complaints, including about bad teachers, and organize to pressure administrators to do something about it?    @MichaelPetrilli

Appropriately, the very first (polite) comment came from a teacher:

Are you being facetious? @IngridFournier

And…no, no he wasn’t. It’s really frustrating, Petrilli says, to see all the things that are wrong in his child’s public school, and not be able to do anything about it. That weak principal! Etc., etc.

There followed a long string of mostly coherent tweets, centered around salient points: You don’t need an app for that, plenty of ways to form groups. Anonymous chats tend to go sideways, sometimes direly so, and anonymous kvetching solves nothing. This kind of thing is a security/data-sharing nightmare, technologically—especially when you have no idea to whom you’re speaking, online.

That devolved into union-bashing and ‘my kid has a bad math teacher,’ precisely the kind of thing you’d expect to see on the Blind app that Petrilli proposes, only now it’s on Twitter, open to the entire low-information universe.

Petrilli has started further Twitter threads to explore this idea—which is hardly innovative—and, evidently, generate more complaints about public school leadership’s non-responsiveness. He seems impervious to the numerous tweets from teachers asking how unsigned, anger-fueled critiques improve ANYTHING in public education. Especially on the first day of school.

A couple of years ago, I was facilitating a graduate-level course in teacher leadership online. Because we’d had some serious ease-of-use issues with the Blackboard platform, we decided to try a closed, private Facebook page for threaded discussions.

I was surprised by the number of teachers in the class who were reluctant or flat-out unwilling to use Facebook—they had emphatically decided not to participate, at all, in any of the more common social media platforms.

Their schools blocked Facebook and Twitter (and often, other sites where required readings were found), for starters. They pointed out that even if access to the online discussion was password-protected and strictly limited to registered participants, course members from other school districts could copy and share things they wrote on a Facebook page—so nobody could be truly honest in online conversations. Social media discourse seemed both personally dangerous and academically lightweight.

I think this speaks more to where hard-working teachers find themselves today than to the relative merits of a technological platform: Watch your back. Keep your nose clean.

So much for the courage and autonomy underlying authentic teacher leadership.

Commenters on Petrilli’s Twitter thread suggested, wisely, that the place for genuine school improvement might be face to face meetings—the PTA, or another parent group. Instead of organizing in secrecy outside the school, prohibiting administrative access to the conversation–features Petrilli was promoting– why not show up with other parents and try to address a common issue of concern?

That, of course, would be a lot of work, and involve building personal relationships toward a specific goal. It would mean time spent in developing trust, time that many working parents don’t have. Plus–not all principals would welcome, say, a ‘Fix the Math Curriculum’ parent advocacy group. For all our talk about welcoming parents and the essential home-school partnership, we seldom invite parents into our professional work: curriculum, instruction, assessment and classroom management.

There are reasons why: Student privacy. State and local policies. The time and challenges involved in explaining every instructional decision. These things, after all, have traditionally been in the teacher’s purview—but few parents realize how much decision-making power has been handed over to federal and state guidelines.

Still—there has to be a real outlet for parent input on substantive issues. A lot of things parents think they want and need for their children, in my experience, fall into the category of ‘fond memories.’ Where are the textbooks, with their nice columns of information, words to copy and look up, and questions at the end of the chapter? Why don’t kids play dodgeball in P.E. anymore? What do you mean there won’t be spelling tests on Friday?

It can be exhausting to explain why you’re making certain choices.  I was fortunate enough, in the pre-app era, to have a Band Boosters group, with 50-odd parents, that met a half-dozen times per year. It was the place where I defended my teaching decisions to the most involved families, face to face. It wasn’t always easy. I once got into a heated discussion with a school board member’s wife about—get this—spats for the marching band, that resulted in her walking out of the meeting in a fury.

Sometimes, I had to change course. But—whatever was being said about me and my program and my capacity as a teacher (including my decision not to wear spats) was said to my face and witnessed by the most important stakeholders: moms and dads.

Ironically—and again, this is just my experience, and not research—I have found public schools much more open to honest feedback than private or charter schools. One of my two children went to high school at a competitive-admission, all-girls Catholic academy. The school was run by a mothers’ group that met exclusively on Tuesday mornings when working parents could not attend. Many of the mothers were alumni of the school; they controlled hiring, shaped the curriculum and set policy. Their daughters were the obvious beneficiaries, in dozens of ways.

Petrilli is wrong in assuming that all public schools don’t listen to parents, but still seems to be at work developing his secret app to take down school system where his children are, presumably, reading and writing and playing on the monkey bars this morning.

The last word goes to @IngridFournier, the first teacher to respond to Petrilli’s mean-spirited tweet: Imagine if this was dedicated to developing best ways to support the teachers who are working hard, getting it right, and making a positive impact on your child’s life. Such a shame to see the energy used to bring folks down. #exhausted

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