A Sad Vision of Charter Schools for Illinois

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Tony Smith – charged with implementing the governor’s vision of charter schools in Illinois

During the closing keynote of the Network for Public Education’s conference, Diane Ravitch shared with the audience a story about an exchange she had in 2012 with Bruce Rauner when she was in Chicago to receive the Kohl Education Prize award. The exchange took place during dinner that evening. Below is a transcript of what Ravitch told us:

 “… I was seated across from Bruce Rauner and I had no idea he was going to run for governor. And we began to have a heated discussion about charter schools because the Noble Network, which he is a part of, names schools for individual rich people so there’s a Bruce Rauner Charter School, there’s a Penny Pritzer Charter School… I don’t know of other rich people in Chicago but they all have their own names on charter schools.

So I said ‘Do you think it’s right that your school doesn’t accept kids with disabilities? He said, ‘Why would we?’

I said, ‘What about the kids who are English Language Learners?’

He said, ‘Those kids are not my problem.’

He said, ‘I want the kids who are going to succeed. I want the kids who are motivated. I want the kids who are going to be successful. I don’t want those kids.’

I said, ‘What are we going to do with them?’

He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s not my problem.’

That’s the governor of Illinois.”

Ravitch is the pre-eminent historian of the American education system so I have no reason to doubt her recollection of the conversation. Rauner just had his buddy Anthony “Tony” Smith hired as the head of the Illinois State Board of Education. Smith was superintendent of the Oakland, CA school district but has never been a teacher or school-level administrator. While in Oakland Smith worked hard to increase the number of charter schools there. He’ll be the perfect state school chief to implement Rauner’s vision of charter schools in Illinois.

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Hostile Takeover of School District

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The mayor of Lyons attempted a hostile takeover of the Lyons Elementary School District 103 today.  Mayor Chris Getty (not to be confused with Ken Getty, his ex-felon, ex-mayor father) bankrolled four of his henchmen during the recent school board election.  Now they’re trying to take over – illegally.

Some background:  I retired as superintendent from District 103 almost three years ago.  District 103 serves students in five communities – Lyons, Brookfield, McCook, Stickney and Forest View.  Four years ago Mayor Getty of Lyons walked into our district office with petitions for five school board candidates.  Thanks to the tireless door-to-door campaigning by the incumbent board members, only one of Getty’s candidates was elected.  This year he again presented the district with five nominating petitions.  Then Getty arranged for over $11,000 in donations from his United Citizens Party and Citizens for Christopher Getty to be transferred to his henchmen’s campaign coffers.  It was reported that during their campaigning there were promises of jobs in District 103 to those who voted for the henchmen.  On April 7th four of his henchmen won seats on the school board – Getty’s henchmen would have a majority of the seven school board seats.

The first sign of trouble began last Wednesday when a woman walked into the district office and told the receptionist that she wanted to apply for the reception’s job.  The woman inferred that Mr. Getty prompted her to apply.  Moral in the district plummeted – no one knows if they are going to have a job after next week.

Needless to say, none of Getty’s henchmen had ever been to a school board meeting before the election.  According to State of Illinois law, the four were to be sworn in on May 4th.  But Mayor Getty couldn’t wait that long.  So on April 28th he had the village’s politically-connected lawyer Burt Odelson meet with his four henchmen.  Nobody knows when and where they met when Odelson swore them in as school board members – contrary to state law and school board policy.  Then, presumably, Getty and/or Odelson gave them a school board meeting agenda to approve.  Aside from the fact that even calling themselves “board members” at that point was preposterous, didn’t someone care that agreeing on such an agenda would have been in violation of the Open Meetings Act?

Getty hands the agenda to his flunky assistant Kyle Leonard to hand deliver it to the interim superintendent Patrick Patt (the superintendent announced her retirement at the end of March).  Patt was told by the flunky, “Here, this is what you need to do.”  Patt understood that as a direct order – post this agenda.  Patt did not post the agenda, realizing that the four henchmen had no legal authority as board members (the Attorney General’s office agrees).

Flunky Leonard came back to the district office after-hours and taped the agenda to the front door.  He went over to the current school board president’s house and taped the agenda to her mail box.  None of the other six current board members were informed about the meeting.

Their agenda calls for a school board meeting on Thursday, April 30th.  The agenda calls for the board to:

  • Fire the two interim superintendents
  • Hire Kyle Hastings as interim superintendent (Hastings is mayor of Orland Hills and was ousted mid-year as superintendent of Bellwood.  He’s a political buddy of Getty.  Its unlikely that any of the newly-elected board members have even met Hastings, yet they are going to make him the superintendent).
  • Fire the district’s legal firm of many years, Robbins-Swartz, which specializes in education law.
  • Hire the law firm Odelson & Sterk (yes, the same Odelson as above) which specializes in municipal law.
  • Change when the school board meetings take place (regardless of when the other board members can make it)

Nobody knows what will happen Thursday night when the four board member-elect henchmen show up at the district office to convene the illegal meeting.  They may have to wait until May 4th to be legally seated.  When they are the purpose of the board of education will no longer be to oversee the education of the 2,600 students in District 103.  The purpose will be to hire whoever Mayor Getty wants and to buy goods and services from whoever Mayor Getty wants.  That will only mean less for the children of District 103 and more for Mayor Getty.

Some of the above information was obtained in Bob Uphues’ excellent article published in The Landmark.

Quotes From the NPE Conference

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Network for Public Education’s (NPE) second annual conference in Chicago.  It was like a revival meeting!  Activists from across the U.S. were there to cheer each other on and to learn how others are supporting public education.  When speakers got up to talk about the Opt-Out movement in New Jersey, hundreds of people got up and cheered.  When Diane Ravitch pointed out the students who occupied the offices of their school superintendent to protest the onerous PARCC testing, the audience cheered and raised their fists in a show of support.

Over the two days of the conference I had the opportunity to attend a wide variety of sessions.  Some I will elaborate on later, but for now here are some quotes I jotted down during the two days:

“Our children are [being used as] instruments of profit.” Jitu Brown
“Stop calling these people ‘reformers.’  They are ‘colonizers.’ ” Jitu Brown
“Teacher colleges are seeing a reduced enrollment due to the state [Michigan] teacher test.”  Western Michigan Professor/attendee
“The extreme right is looking to undermine the fundamental properties of democracy.” Presenter unknown
“Media Matters did a study of education stories on television.  They found that teachers are interviewed 9% of the time.”  Hilary Tone
“We have bad test scores.  Why is America still here?” Yong Zhao
“I had to raise $70,000 to run for the school board.” Shanthi Gonzales
“I don’t know of any school that has improved by being closed.” Diane Ravitch
“Stop Arne Duncan from being the H.R. office for every school district in America.” Randi Weingarten
“The Florida Department of Education refused to agree that no teacher should be evaluated on the results of a student they’ve never met.” Lily Eskelsen Garcia.
“They [ed reformers] have the ‘Stepford Child Syndrome.’  They think every kid is the same, can learn from the same curriculum and do the same on the standardized test.”  Lily Eskelson Garcia
“Teachers have terrible character flaw – you’re humble.  Get out there and brag about what we do.” Lily Eskelson Garcia
“We [teachers] are the ‘first responders’ to poverty.”  Randi Weingarten
“We opted our daughter out from state testing.  So far she has been home seven of the nine days of testing.” Steve Baker

PS – Sorry to all 31 of my loyal followers who have been sitting on the edge of their seats for the past few months waiting for my next post.  The NPE has re-energized me so look for more posts soon.

Teachers: Tell Me How You Feel About the Upcoming PARCC or SBAC

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Dear Friends,
I began this blog because I am concerned about all the issues that are negatively affecting public education.  Recently I have been reading about the issue of parent (and as a result, legislator) concerns about the upcoming PARCC and SBAC assessments.  I think it’s important to find out what teachers feel about these assessments so I designed an online survey just for teachers.  The survey is only 13 questions long and should take no more than 5 minutes to complete.  All responses are anonymous – there is no way to track a response back to the person who completed it.
I am asking your help in one of two ways:
1) If you are a classroom teacher, please take the survey and forward this message to your fellow teachers.
2) If you are not a classroom teacher but know some, please forward this to them and ask them to take it.  Before forwarding you can check out the survey by clicking the link below – just don’t hit “Submit” at the end of the form.  It’s just for current teachers.

Click below to take the survey:

If you are interested in the results, please check my blog in late March.
Thanks

Must Reading – HML’s School Performance: The Iceberg Effect

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The Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable have published a fascinating report called School Performance: The Iceberg Effect.  I would recommend reading the full report but an Executive Summary is also available – both can be found here.

They wrote the study because of their concerns about the use of international large-scale education assessments (ILSA) such as PISA to compare countries.  As educators, we cringe when newspapers and critics boil down the success of a child, let alone a country, on the results of a test.  They cite several research studies which indicate that up to 70% of tested achievement can be accounted for by out-of-school factors.  Hence The Iceberg Effect – a tendency focus on the part of the iceberg we can see when the part we can’t see is so much more important.

In their report, the part of the iceberg we can see are Student Outcomes (student test results) and System Outcomes (how successfully a country produces educated citizens and skilled workers).  The parts of the iceberg we can’t see include Inequity & Inequality, Social Stress & Violence, Support for Schools, and Support for Young Families.  Four indicators for each of these six dimensions were defined and then used to rank order 9 countries – the G7 plus Finland and China.

What I found most interesting was how the U.S. ranked, compared to these other similar economic powerhouses, on each of the 24 indicators.   The U.S. ranked last or second to last on 13 of the 24 indicators!  According to the report, “It is the only one of the nine nations with a maroon designation [bottom third in rank] in three of the six dimensions. The results for the United States with regard to economic inequity, social stress, and support for young families—all correlated with school performance—leave a great deal to be desired.” Pg. 18.  In fact the U.S. ranked last in Social Stress, last in Support for Families, and second to last in Economic Inequity.

The only area in which the U.S. excelled was System Outcomes, where it ranked first in Years of Education Completed, Possession of Secondary Diploma, Possession of Bachelor’s Degree, and Global Share of High Achieving Science Students.   Isn’t it a bit ironic that even though the U.S. ranked highest in all four of the indicators in the Systems Outcomes Dimension, reformers keep telling us how bad our schools are?  That our students aren’t “College Ready”?  In its conclusion the report stated, “Based on the indicators included in this study, it seems clear that the United States has the most highly educated workforce among these nine nations. At the same time, American society reveals the greatest economic inequities among the advanced nations in this analysis, combined with the highest levels of social stress, and the lowest levels of support for young families.” Pg. 43.

My takeaway?  When reformers like the Gates Foundation wash their hands of social issues and say, “We’re going to fix society by making new types of schools, harder tests, self-paced learning gizmos, and better teachers” they are working on the tip of the iceberg.  Where are the gazillionaires who want to donate a couple of $billion to reduce the number of violent deaths, drug deaths, teenage pregnancies, and infant death due to abuse or neglect?  To increase pre-school enrollment and extend more benefits to young families?  Remember, it was the part of the iceberg they couldn’t see that the sunk the Titanic.

Vision 20/20 – A Step in the Right Direction

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Many people (me included) have spent a lot of time wringing their hands over what Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, the Walton clan, and the Koch brothers are doing to public education.  As previously posted, I believe a big reason they have gained such a foothold in the conversation is because we the public educators have been too silent.   That’s why I am so optimistic about an effort called Vision 20/20. Their policy brief can be found here and the Executive Summary here.

Vision 20/20 is an effort by six professional associations to take back control of the conversation and influence the political decisions shaping public education here in Illinois.  The Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO), Illinois Principals Association (IPA), Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS), Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), Superintendents’ Commission for the Study of Demographics and Diversity (SCSDD) came together in November, 2012 to create Vision 20/20 and finalized their recommendations two years later.

They recognized that control of public education was slipping away from the professionals into the hands of non-educators.   They promote public education, saying, “As public educators, we believe public education works. We reject the premise that education in Illinois has failed but recognize its impact has not been equitably delivered to all student populations and that there are opportunities for continuous improvement.”

Vision 20/20’s stated outcomes are clear:

Conscious that no single legislative attempt at school improvement can be developed, implemented, or find success without the support, devotion, and hard work of all stakeholders, Vision 20/20 asks not just for state action, but also for local action and the support of educators across the state to fulfill the promise of public education. On behalf of the over two million schoolchildren in Illinois, we challenge the State Legislature, the Governor, and all stakeholders to take action.

Their report includes 24 state policy recommendations in four major areas, as described in their Policy Brief:

Highly Effective Educators – The quality of teachers and school leaders is the greatest predictor of student achievement schools can influence. By attracting, developing, and retaining our state’s best educators, we can have a profound impact on student learning.

21st Century Learning – For success in life, students need more than knowledge of math and reading. It is time to expand the definition of student learning, commit to the development of the “whole child,” and invest in policies proven to link all schools to 21st century learning tools.

Shared Accountability – A quality education for all Illinois students cannot be ensured without the collaboration, compromise, and hard work of both educators and legislators. With that in mind, it is necessary to expand educator responsibility in the legislative process, create a shared accountability model, and restructure mandates to allow more local district flexibility.

Equitable and Adequate Funding – All students in Illinois are entitled to a quality education. It is our duty to ensure our students have access to all necessary resources by improving equity in the funding model, appropriating adequate dollars for education, and allowing local school districts the autonomy needed to increase efficiency.

They are taking Vision 20/20 to local schools boards and asking them to endorse the plan – over 180 districts have done so already.  Their next step is to take the policy recommendations to the state legislature and try to get them enacted.  These are good steps forward, an attempt to make the needs of public schools be heard over the din of Common Core, budget woes, and high-stakes testing.  Their voice would be much louder with the addition of the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.  Together, perhaps they can reclaim the right to shape education in Illinois.

Gates Foundation. Good Charity or Bad Charity? Final Thoughts

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David Tyack and  Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform is one of my favorite books.  They chronicle how Americans have viewed public education as a means to building a better society.  From one-room schoolhouses in the 1800s to the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s to the response to Sputnik in the 1950s, Americans have shaped the purpose of public education.  Americans – not just one person. Not a foundation.

When did we, as a society, give up our responsibility to determine the purpose of public education?  I can remember back in 1985 when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) went hat-in-hand to the Illinois legislature (again) for a bigger budget and the response was, “If you want more money, you’re going to have to show us that you’re worth it.”  State-wide student testing began shortly thereafter.  The purpose of education then became, “Earn your keep by showing me how good your schools and teachers are” which was not a societal need but an economic one.  Building a better society using public education doesn’t exist in the American consciousness today – and as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.

So if we are unwilling to fill the vacuum of societal purpose for public education, who will?  Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffett.  They said “College Ready” is American’s societal need and they have defined for public education how to meet that need:

  • Create a standardized “American” curriculum
  • Provide professional development to teachers to ensure they teach to that standard curriculum correctly
  • Evaluate teachers to see if they are teaching the standard curriculum correctly, and if they don’t, remove them from the classroom
  • Use technology to implement the standard curriculum

America didn’t set this agenda.  Recognizing this, the Gates Foundation hedged their bet that American public schools might not want to accomplish their agenda so they support charter schools and alternative schools to demonstrate how it should be done.  They pour money into national professional organizations and to the Council of Chief State Officers to get the Foundation’s agenda done.

“College Ready” is America’s need?  Those kids in Naperville and Winnetka were born “College Ready”.  What a frickin’ joke to the kids in Chicago who are just hoping to survive long enough to make it to the safety of their school tomorrow.

Why did we allow them to control the conversation about the educational needs of America?  How did it come about that the Gates Foundation is telling us, the education professionals, how to do our business?  The sad part is, we let them do this to us because we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  We, as a profession, have been reluctant to get involved in politics, to write the newspapers about what schools need, to stand up and tell someone outside of the teacher’s lounge what our kids need.  Until we, as a profession, are willing to tell everybody what America’s kids need, the billionaires and their foundations will fill the void.

Next time: Vision 2020 tries to fill the void