Tag Archives: Carol Burris

Lessons from NPE Philadelphia

11 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/11/2022

The Downtown Double Tree Hotel where the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference was held has great meeting facilities. Over the May Day weekend of learning and being inspired, it was an easy trek from the five joint sessions in the large room to the six smaller breakout sessions. The difficult part was picking which of the eight panels available in each breakout sessions to attend.

I presented in a Saturday afternoon panel called “The City Fund: Where they’ve Developed and Implemented the Portfolio Model and Where they Hope to Spread it Next.” At the same time there were seven other panels: “Fight against Vouchers in Tennessee”;  “The Constitutional and Policy Pushback against Vouchers and Charters”;  “Gerrymandering, Education and Unaccountable State Legislators” and four more. Even I was conflicted about being in my panel and not being able to attend one of the other offerings.

The conference opened with Diane Ravitch firing up the crowd at 8 AM Saturday morning. For those of us from the west coast that was equivalent to 5 AM. She proposed a new framing of the acronym WOKE as “Wide Open to Knowledge and Enlightenment.” Ravitch continued the theme demanding,

“Let’s reclaim the word WOKE as Public School Activists!”

“Wake UP to Inequity”

“Wake UP to Injustice”

“Wake up & bring LIGHT into our Public Schools”

Following Diane, NPE Director Carol Burris introduced an activist she met when he was in high school and she was a principal, Nikhil Goyal. Today he is education advisor for Senator Bernie Sanders. Goyal demanded a “New Deal for Public Education.” He called for:

  • “$100s of millions for school infrastructure
  • “End standardized testing
  • “End federal charter school investment
  • “Institute restorative justice
  • “Extend the child tax credited paid at 100%”

Goyal also made the point, “we cannot discuss public education without discussing poverty, gun violence, the opioid epidemic and safe housing.”

Privatization is Private Control over Public Goods.

Donald Cohen from In the Public Interest shared his definition of privatization as private control over public goods during his panel. The panel was moderated by NPE co-founder Anthony Cody and included Professor Maurice Cunningham, author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization and Professor Donald Reed co-author with Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. of Getting into Good Trouble at School: A Guide to Building an Antiracist School System.

Professor Cohen contended that what is labeled a public good should be decided democratically and claimed privatization is an assault on democracy. He noted that markets always exclude people.

Maurice Cunningham pointed out that the right has redefined liberty as selfishness. Donald Reed observed that shutting down the ability to learn with movements like anti-CRT is fundamentally an assault on democracy.

The panel presented strong evidence for why resisting the privatization of public schools is fighting to save democracy.

VanCedric Williams is an Impressive Leader from Oakland, California

For more than an hour, Oakland Public Schools Director VanCedric Williams explained the attack on his schools and answered questions. Williams teaches in San Francisco Unified but lives in Oakland. His performance was so impressive that I and others in the room felt we were witnessing the birth of a future star in the struggle to save public education from the looters.

He explained how in 2004 Oakland Unified Public School District had a $10 million deficit but was forced by the state of California to accept a $100 million dollar loan. After a series of four state appointed and Eli Broad trained administrators, Oakland still owes $100 million dollars not to the state but to JP Morgan-Chase their new creditor that they did not choose for a loan they did not choose.

A Surprise Lunch Time Visitor

At 12:30 PM we were all scheduled to eat and listen to a panel discussion moderated by Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean of Education at the University of Kentucky. Heilig is also an NPE board member. Joining him on the panel was the first female of color to be elected president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Cecelia Myart-Cruz. She is hated by billionaire privatizers and their propaganda organs The 74 and LA School Report. Also on the panel was Adelle Cothorne the former principal of Noyes elementary school in Washington DC who blew the whistle on the Michelle Rhee pushed cheating scandals.

However, before lunch was served the room became stimulated by the arrival of Bronx Congressman Jamaal Bowman. Bowman came to ask us to support his new bill to eliminate standardized testing. He also said, “You cannot have a democracy without having an exemplary public education system.”   

Diane Ravitch, Jamaal Bowman and Carol Burris

The joint lunch session ended with three NPE awards. Dr. Annika Whitfield voice of the resistance in Little Rock who challenges the Walton family in a daily struggle to save that city’s public schools received the first ever Diane Ravitch David award. This year the Phyllis Bush Grass Roots award went to Charles Foster and the organization of pastors in Texas and Tennessee working to save public education. They were preaching to the choir in Philadelphia. Also receiving the Grass Roots award was Stand for Schools Nebraska which has succeeded in protecting that state from privatization including no charter schools or vouchers.

Panel on The City Fund

As the moderator of the panel, I presented an outline of the oligarch game plan for privatizing public education. This outline which was first suggested by Dr. Jim Scheurich and his team came from my article The City Fund uses Oligarch Money to Privatize Public Schools.

  1. Convince the public that business is the best model for running schools.
  2. Develop a huge infusion of new dollars for school board elections. (Dark Money)
  3. Establish unified enrollment for public schools and charter schools.
  4. Undermine teacher professionalism with Teach for America (TFA) or any instant-teacher-certification program and take control of teacher professional development.
  5. Implement Innovation Schools which are an ALEC sponsored method for removing schools from elected school board control.
  6. Develop a funding conduit for national and local wealthy individuals and organizations to support local privatization initiatives.
  7. Co-locate charter schools with public schools using rules that favor charter schools.
  8. Develop a network of local organizations or affiliates that collaborate on the agenda.
  9. Support gentrification.

The three other panel members were Keith E. Benson, President of the Camden Education Association and adjunct professor at Rutgers University; Gloria Nolan, Interim Parent Liaison for St. Louis Public Schools and a new NPE board member; plus Sarah Sorensen, public school parent and Board Trustee in San Antonio ISD. Each of these panelists told the story of how City Fund is financing the attack on their public schools and running the playbook outlined above.

To date, The City Fund is operating in 14 cities with plans to expand to 40 cities.

Wrapping up Saturday

Session 4 began at 3:40 PM and featured 8 stimulating panels. I attended “The Federal Charter Schools Program: Decades of Damage and Mismanagement.” Among those other panels I would have liked to attend were “The Nebraska Miracle”, “Astroturf Parents Groups” and “Getting the Data Straight: Understanding Public Education’s Great Success.”

The last joint presentation of the day was delivered by Professor Noliwe Rooks who gave a moving presentation about the democratically ignored citizens of Detroit. At least three different times – from 1995 to 2010 – the governor of Michigan overrode public votes for the state not to take over their schools; twice countered by a Republican and once by a Democrat.

The day concluded with a book signing and a mixer.

Steven Van Zandt and the Ashbury Jukes

Sunday morning began with eight more informative panels followed by morning brunch at 9:25 AM. Suddenly there was a stir in the room and a teacher at the table in front of me was absolutely thrilled to see that Diane Ravitch was sitting down on the stage to interview Little Steven.

Steven Van Zandt co-founded the band South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes who subsequently took his writing and musical producing abilities to the E-Street band where he and Bruce Springsteen collaborated on many big hits. He also is well known for his role on the Sopranos, but his social activism and support of public education is much less known.  

On twitter Diane Ravitch afterwards posted, “I wish you had been in Philly to hear the wonderful “Little Stevie” (formerly the EST band and “The Sopranos”) talk about his love for music, kids, teachers, and arts in the schools at #npe2022philly. Everyone loved his enthusiasm and candor.”

These two fighters for justice, Diane and Steven, met at a Los Angeles teachers’ rally during the last strike.

Steven made two remarks that particularly resonated with me: “Teach rock not war” and “teachers are on the front-lines of a war against ignorance.”

Diane Ravitch and Steven Van Zandt

What is going on at TFA

The last breakout session I attend was presented by Julian Vasquez Heilig, Jameson Brewer and Gary Rubinstein. In 2015, Teach For America (TFA) had it largest corps class ever and was enjoying almost uninterrupted good press. That year Heilig moderated a panel discussion on TFA in which then doctoral candidate Jameson Brewer presented his observations of being a 2008 corps member. Since then he and Heilig have published a string of peer reviewed research articles that undermined the propaganda from TFA. It may not be a direct cause and affect relationship but since then the size of the TFA corps classes have continued to be reduced.

Their newest article is Planting Toxic Seeds in Fertile Soil: The Knowledge Acquisition, Achievement, and Behavioral Beliefs Inculcated Into Teach For America Corps Members of Color.” The last five years, TFA has been focused on recruiting teachers of color; however they still inculcate these teachers with “top-down, authoritative, and militaristic in the delivery of curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom management.” The paper states,

“This ideology is wrought with deficit ideologies about the culture of Black and Brown communities, who, drawing from their White Saviors or White ideology, are understood as lacking the appropriate cultural characteristics to end poverty. So, while TFA recruits in the past few years (a small portion of the organization’s overall history) have increasingly been non-White, corps members are still inculcated with these White cultural assumptions and the myth of meritocracy, which are infused into the organization and its vast education reform and policy network.”

The Best For Last

Jitu Brown is a freedom fighter from Chicago and the director of the civil rights organization Journey for Justice (J4J). He will always be remembered as the man who organized the Dyett High School hunger strike which after 34 days led to the end of Rahm Emanuel’s reign of terror for Chicago’s Black community.

In his more than one hour address, he cried from the depths of his life for justice. Jitu told us about setting off firecrackers when he was 10-years-old and having a Chicago cop stick a gun in his mouth. He asked, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore?” He noted with disdain, “They want to give kids a laptop and call it education.”

Jitu is not a fan of school choice which he presciently observed was born to maintain segregation. He claimed, “Charter schools have been weaponized to move Black people out of our cities” and also noted that young people of color look to Ella Baker as their model of fighting for justice.

Jitu and J4J are always inspirational at NPE conferences.

Jitu Brown Speaking at NPE Philadelphia

For almost 4-years since our last gathering in Indianapolis, we have been isolated and watching as billionaires got richer while funding the privatization of the commons. Following NPE Philadelphia, I came home happily exhausted knowing that after a rest I would be ready to fight on for public education the foundation of American democracy.

I am inspired by what a diverse group NPE is. It stretches from Charles Foster and a group of Baptist preachers to Jitu Brown and J4J. We have Muslims and Mexicans, Jews and Asians and Buddhists all working harmoniously to save our public schools. This is a model for America.

Happily, I was once again able to take a picture with the great Diane Ravitch. She has not always been on the right side of all things but what makes her great is that she is capable of changing her mind if the evidence demands it. Like her and every other human, I have been wrong on occasion but fighting to save public education is far from an error. We must stop the looters and save democracy.

All picture by Thomas Ultican

Federal Charter Schools Program a Fountain of Corruption and Disruption

19 Apr

By Thomas Ultican 4/19/2020

Last year, the Network for Public Education (NPE) published two investigations of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). The first one called Asleep at the Wheel came in March. In it they made several claims including that hundreds of millions of dollars had gone to schools that never opened or were shut down.

The authors, Carol Burris and Jeff Bryant, stated, “Therefore, we recommend that Congress end funding for new charter grants coming from CSP.”

Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, harshly criticized the report to Congress saying, “It makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor.”  In response, NPE redoubled efforts and in December published Still Asleep at the Wheel where they documented that their conservative claims in the first report under-reported the extent of negligence associated with the CSP.

DeVos Graphic

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

The Charter Schools Program

After Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat in 1984, a group of mostly southern Democrats including Bill Clinton founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). According to a 1997 article in the New Republic,

“… [T]he DLC’s mission was to wrest the Democratic Party away from its left-wing establishment—particularly minority interest groups and labor unions—in order to transform it into a party that championed middle-class values. The old Democrats called for minimum wage increases, antipoverty programs, protectionism, and school busing; the DLC’s self-described new Democrats sought balanced budgets, welfare reform, free trade agreements, and charter schools.”

In his book Kochland, Christopher Leonard wrote, “If the new era was defined by any term, it was still the soupy and ambiguous term of ‘neoliberalism,’ which combined the machinery of a welfare state with deregulatory efforts for the select few special interest groups that had the money and lobbying power to make their case heard in Washington, DC.”

The Charter Schools Program was established in Title 10 of the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The purposes cited were to provide support for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools. The intent stated was to enhance parent and student choices among public schools.  The business men and politicians writing the law believed these choices and standards would result in higher student achievement. In his paper “Schooling the State: ESEA and the Evolution of the U.S. Department of Education,” Patrick McGuinn explained,

“In the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, President Clinton—a former “education governor” and ‘New Democrat’— secured changes that would push states to increase performance reporting and embrace educational accountability. Under this new ESEA and a companion piece of legislation, Goals 2000, states were required to establish academic standards in each grade and create tests to assess whether students had mastered the standards. The tests were to be administered to all poor children at least once in grades three through five, six through nine, and ten through twelve.”

In “Still Asleep,” Burris recites,

“Begun with just $6 million in 1995, Congressional appropriations for the CSP jumped to $190 million by 2001 and nearly $219 million in 2004. In 2019, the federal Charter Schools Program was funded with $440 million in taxpayer dollars.”

The charter school theory was that these privately operated schools without interference from state education departments and local school districts would unleash dramatic innovation and improvement. In response to “Asleep,” DeVos wrote Representative Grijalva stating, “Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has shown that charter school students outperform their peers in traditional public schools.” However, her Education department’s 2019 study concluded that charter schools do not get better academic results than public schools.

When Bill Clinton first pushed charter school legislation, it was promoted as an experiment. The experiment is now 25-years old. This new class of privatized schools has come with many unintended consequences. They have driven up education costs through the inefficiencies associated with running dual systems; they have undermined teacher professionalism; they have weakened one of the great pillars of democracy in America and they have diminished the role of schools as a unifying historical entity in neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, they have not unleashed dramatic innovation and improvement; just disruption.

Asleep at the Wheel

The March 2019 paper “Asleep at the Wheel,” states in the executive summary,

“The federal outlays we examined are not modest expenditures amounting to little more than rounding errors. In its 2015 analysis, CSP stated that since its inception in 1994, the program had provided $3.3 billion to fund the startup, replication, and expansion of charter schools, creating 40 percent of operational public charter schools in the nation. We estimate that program funding has grown to well over $4 billion. That could bring the total of the potential waste to around $1billion.

“The waste of public dollars on closed charter schools is not the only concern. Of the grant recipients that manage to stay open, we uncovered extensive evidence that raises serious questions as to whether or not these schools are truly ‘high quality,’ meeting the CSP goal of providing equitable access for disadvantaged students.

“Through detailed examination of CSP’s application process, and by comparing claims made by charter grant applicants to information on state databases and school websites, we found numerous examples of federal tax dollars being misspent due to an inattentive process that routinely accepts applicants’ claims without scrutiny.”

“The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

On April 10, 2019, Secretary of Education DeVos testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor where she was repeatedly queried about different claims made in “Asleep at the Wheel.” When Wisconsin Congressman Pocan asked about the more than $200 million grant to IDEA Charter Schools and their plan to lease a private jet for 6-years at $2 million per year, DeVos deflected and never answered the question but she did say, “The report that you referenced has been totally debunked as propaganda.”

That was a lie. It still has not been totally debunked or even seriously challenged.

In a written reply to follow up questions by the committee DeVos stated,

“Quite simply, the Network for Public Education is anti-reform, anti-charter and anti-choice; accordingly, its report represents nothing more than a political attack.”

“Unfortunately, several of your colleagues appear to have embraced this report without a careful examination of it. This rush to judgment risks fracturing the longstanding bipartisan support for public charter schools, which so many American families have come to rely upon as the only alternative to failing public schools.”

 “What isn’t debatable is that the Network for Public Education had a purpose when it published its report: to smear public charter schools, the CSP program and its grantees under the guise of research. It makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor.”

“Since 2001, of the 5,265 charter schools that have received funding through a State entity or directly from the Department, 634 did not open and are unlikely to open in the future. As the developers of these schools received only CSP “planning” funds, which serve the specific purpose of enabling a charter school developer to explore the feasibility of opening a new charter school, the average award size for these schools was significantly lower than the average award size for CSP “implementation” grants and subgrants. In total, the funds awarded comprise less than 3.5 percent of the more than $2 billion in total awards made to public charter schools during the same period.”

The President of NPE, Diane Ravitch, has a long history of championing standards based education reform informed by standardized testing. It was only after reviewing years of data around 2007 that she concluded it was not working. She certainly never gave up on the idea of improving public education.

Her criticism of charter schools has been the lack of oversight, profiteering and fraud that have plagued the industry.

As far as school “choice” is concerned. In her book School Choice, educator and NPE supporter Mercedes Schneider quoted a 2012 Educational Research Alliance study noting, “The combined pressure to enroll a greater number of students and raise test scores to meet state targets seems to have created perverse incentives, encouraging the practice of screening and selecting students.”

Schneider observed, “[Milton] Friedman’s idea of the market as a disinterested player in the game of choice simply is not consistent with practice.”

Ironically, Secretary DeVos has a well known anti-public education bias. Christina Rizga wrote about the DeVoses’ philanthropy for Mother Jones stating,

“… [T]here’s the DeVoses’ long support of vouchers for private, religious schools; conservative Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.”

DeVos asserting NPE “makes sweeping conclusions without supporting data or methodological rigor” is a baseless claim. The reasons no one has been able to convincingly refute the conclusions in either “Asleep” or “Still Asleep” is because of the quality of the supporting data used and the careful rigor applied.

DeVos indicated that the spending on “ghost charters” [charters that never opened] was not nearly as high as stated. In a Washington Post article, Burris used DeVos’s data to defend the paper.

DeVos stated, “In total, the funds awarded comprise less than 3.5 percent of the more than $2 billion in total awards made to public charter schools during the same period.” Burris pointed out,

“The total for grants in the 2015 data set we used for our report is $1,794,548,157. Of that amount, 3.5 percent is $62,809,185. Our report said $45.5 million was wasted on ghost schools. Again, it appears as if we did not catch all of the waste.”

Burris also noted that of the 5,265 grantee schools DeVos cited only 3,138 were still in existence according to a department contracted WestEd presentation. That means 2,127 schools either never opened or were closed; a rate of 40.4% of all charters that were funded from active grants during those years. In “Still Asleep,” the percentage of failed charter schools over the same period was stated as 37%.

In other words, using DeVos’s numbers and official reports contracted by the US Department of Education for checking; the NPE numbers proved to be conservative and accurate.

Conclusion

Both “Asleep” and “Still Asleep” are well researched important studies illuminating the profound corruption in the federal Charter School Program.

“Still Asleep” notes, “Hundreds of millions of dollars sent to states with few rules of the road have resulted in the massive waste of federal tax dollars, as grants were doled out to individuals who had no credentials or experience to open up a new school.”

“Asleep” and “Still Asleep” are forty and forty-eight pages in length respectively. The data presented and the illustrative charter school antidotes are meticulously documented. These two documents reveal a corrupt raid on taxpayer money which is negatively impacting K-12 education in America.

The “Still Asleep” recommendations seem like common sense. They urge:

“We therefore strongly recommend that Congress end appropriations for new charter school grants in the upcoming budget and continue funding only for obligated amounts only to legitimate projects. Once those grants have been closed, we recommend that the CSP be ended and that charter schools continue to receive federal support only through other federal funding streams such as Title I and IDEA. Students, not charter school entrepreneurs, should benefit from federal funds.

“We also recommend thorough audits by Congress of previous grant awards, the establishment of regulations to ensure grant awards still under term are being responsibly carried out and that misspent money is returned to the federal coffers.”