[Chicago] CPS: Expulsion rate higher at charter schools

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Alex Richards,
Chicago Tribune reporters
7:23 a.m. CST, February 26, 2014

As it continues to modify strict disciplinary policies in an effort to keep students in the classroom, Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday released data showing privately run charter schools expel students at a vastly higher rate than the rest of the district.

The data reveal that during the last school year, 307 students were kicked out of charter schools, which have a total enrollment of about 50,000. In district-run schools, there were 182 kids expelled out of a student body of more than 353,000.

That means charters expelled 61 of every 10,000 students while the district-run schools expelled just 5 of every 10,000 students.

It’s the first time the district has released student suspension data for every school and also the first time it has released data on expulsions for charters. For charter critics, the numbers will buttress long-standing complaints that the privately run operations push out troubled students, allowing their schools to record stronger academic performances.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett acknowledged the figures will become additional fuel in the ongoing debate over charters in the city.

“I think there’s been a lot of supposition and conversation about what and how the charter success is measured, whether they throw kids out or they keep kids in,” Byrd-Bennett said. “I think having the data is going to now lead to productive conversations.”

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, noted that the data show several charter schools do not have high expulsion rates, and discounted the argument that charters use discipline to improve their academic record.

“There’s some above and some below the district average,” Broy said. “You can’t make the argument that expulsions themselves are causing the overall school performance to increase because the (small percentage of) expelled students will not meaningfully change how well students did overall.”

Still, expulsion rates at some of the most touted charter schools were striking. At three campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has faced backlash over its disciplinary approach, anywhere from 2 percent to nearly 5 percent of students were expelled in the last school year.

At Urban Prep Academies, which annually boasts a nearly perfect college acceptance rate, more than 3 percent of the student body was expelled during the last school year at three campuses. At district-run schools, just over 0.05 percent of the student body was expelled last year.

So far this year, charter schools already have expelled 151 students, nearly three times the number at district-run schools.

The data released Tuesday also showed that African-American students face a higher rate of disciplinary action in the district. Last school year, approximately 75 percent of all suspensions were handed to African-Americans, a group that makes up about 41 percent of CPS’ student body. (Suspended students are allowed to return to school, as opposed to students who are expelled.)

“Until we called out the numbers, until we had deep conversations with people in schools about the racial disparity, I don’t think people understood it as such,” Byrd-Bennett said of the high rate of suspensions for black students. “There’s something going on here, and we need to address it.”

Byrd-Bennett on Tuesday said she inherited “a really punitive zero-tolerance code of conduct” and that the district will continue to seek to reduce the number of students who are suspended and expelled.

“This is a major goal this year that will not drop off the screen,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Broy said charters will work with CPS to bring down expulsion rates in the privately run schools, and he in turn hopes to share some behavioral programs that have been successful at charter schools with the district.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. attorney general’s office released national guidelines on student discipline codes, acknowledging many urban school districts’ zero-tolerance policies have created school-to-prison pipelines.

“There’s documented research out there that shows these policies increased the chance of students going to prison, worsened the school climate, predicted a high rate of misbehavior in the future and increased dropout rates,” said Jason Sinocruz, an attorney with the Washington-based Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has focused on disparities in school discipline.

“With Chicago, it’s always been a challenge getting data, and in the past the data that was available showed Chicago is among the worst in terms of its discipline code and certainly among the worst for large cities,” Sinocruz said.

In 2012, CPS revised its discipline policy, eliminating out-of-school suspensions for all but the most serious infractions. The district also did away with mandatory 10-day suspensions.

Officials plan to further cut the types of infractions that can lead to suspensions along with reducing the subjectivity in the discipline code and better defining vague terms such as “defying authority.” They also hope to expand restorative justice programs, which despite CPS efforts only exist in about 60 schools.

Sinocruz said some of Chicago’s charter schools are known nationally for having rigorous discipline policies, but until now there were no data to back up the qualitative accounts.

Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project NIA, a local group that focuses on reducing youth incarceration, that worked with a coalition of community and student groups to change the district’s discipline code, praised CPS for “being transparent around school discipline data.”

“CPS has taken a big step,” she said.

But Kaba agreed that more needs to be done and that the district needs to push for charter schools to follow district student codes.

“There’s tons of informal ways students are being expelled; either they’re being counseled out or it’s strongly suggested they leave without putting them through a formal process,” Kaba said. “The same thing is happening in traditional schools, but not to the same degree as in charters.”


Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC


Chicago: As school closings vote nears, questions remain on money, academics, safety

By: Sarah Karp / May 20, 2013

A rally in Daley Plaza protests against school closings. Picture by Lucio Villa.

When Margarita Miranda moved to Old Town in 2000, the area looked much different. The Cabrini Green public housing projects cast a long shadow, and neighborhood elementary schools were located on every few blocks.

Today, the high-rise public housing has been wiped away, leaving the area with a smattering of row houses, townhouses and some stretches of still-empty lots.

Over the past decade, three of the schools that served the area’s children have been closed and reopened—one as a charter school, one as a selective enrollment school and the third as a lease by a private Catholic school that costs about $8,000 a year.

Miranda and other parents are now fighting furiously to save one of two neighborhood schools left. A parent volunteer who calls all the students at Manierre Elementary “her children,” she is emphatic that she won’t give up. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the closings on Wednesday.

“My son is upset,” she says. Miranda’s son has a disability that includes learning and speech difficulties and she’s afraid that he will simply “shut down” if he has to transfer to a new school.

But there’s something more that is eating at her. Even though Manierre is surrounded by high-performing schools, the school that her children are now supposed to attend is a Level 3 school with almost identical test scores.

Like Manierre, the receiving school, Jenner, has mostly black, low-income students. The other area schools are more diverse with far fewer poor children.

“I don’t want my children to go from a Level 3 school to a Level 3 school,” Miranda says. “I don’t want that for my children. They are good kids. They don’t bother nobody. They respect their elders.”

In some ways, Manierre is unique compared to the vast majority of schools slated to close on the South Side and West Side. Manierre is on the Near North Side, nestled next to some of the wealthiest areas in the city.

But in other ways, it is not different. Two months ago, CPS leaders announced their intention to close 54 schools, co-locate 11 and hand over six to the Academy of Urban School Leadership to be turned around. The end result of the school actions is that traditional, district-run neighborhood schools will become scarcer. Schools to which students have to apply and those run by private organizations will continue to take over, casting an ever-bigger shadow over the district.

The mayor and CPS officials have cast the move much differently, repeatedly saying that closings and consolidations will allow the district to redirect resources to fewer schools. And with the district facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, officials say closings will save $43 million a year in operating costs (starting in two years) and another $437 million in capital costs over the next decade.

“What we must do is to ensure that the resources some kids get, all kids get,” said Byrd-Bennett in a videotaped message on the CPS website. “With our consolidations, children are guaranteed to get what they need.”

Yet many of the district’s claims have drawn intense scrutiny and raised questions that undercut the rationale for closings as either a cost-savings or school improvement strategy.

Going to “better” schools

The first claim to face scrutiny is that students at closing schools will end up in higher- performing ones. According to state law, Byrd-Bennett has the authority to define “higher-performing,” and she determined that even when a school has the same performance rating, it can be considered higher- performing if it does better on a majority of the metrics, such as attendance and test scores.

Yet researchers note an important point: A move to a school that is only slightly better, at most, likely won’t mean much to students. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that, in previous rounds of closings, displaced students only reaped an academic benefit if they were sent to markedly better schools, defined as those in the top quartile.

In this case, just six receiving schools out of 55 are in the top quartile of all CPS schools. And in only three cases—3 out of 53 closings—are kids being sent from a school in the lowest quartile to a school in the highest, according to an analysis by WBEZ. Two-thirds of the closing schools are among the lowest rated in CPS, but in 18 cases students will be sent to schools that are equally low-rated.

Even among the 12 receiving schools that have the highest CPS rating, there is a broad range in terms of performance. Chopin, on the Near North Side, has nearly 96 percent of students meeting standards on the ISAT and nearly 70 percent exceeding standards, while Faraday, on the West Side, has 73 percent meeting standards and about 13 percent exceeding them. Research has shown that students need to exceed standards to perform well in high school.

Furthermore, no one knows exactly how many students will end up at the designated “receiving school”—the one that by some measure is higher performing. Last year, less than half of students went to the designated receiving school with many parents choosing closer or more convenient schools that performed no better than the school they left, shows a Catalyst analysis.

CPS officials counter that the money invested into the receiving schools will improve technology and other resources. The schools will be air-conditioned, with iPads, playgrounds and libraries. The district is also designating 19 schools as specialty schools, with International Baccalaureate, STEM and fine arts programs. This year, the new specialty schools will receive $250,000 to $360,000 in extra money to pay for positions and training.

While leaders may have meant for this to sweeten the deal, parents and activists have been incredulous that their schools must close in order to get resources that are common place in other schools.

Parents also aren’t convinced that the new turnaround schools will be better for their children. CPS plans to hand over six schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership for turnaround, which entails firing all or most of the staff, including the principal and the lunch ladies. For each turnaround, AUSL gets $300,000 in upfront costs, plus $420 per student for each student for at least five years.

Contracts with AUSL are for five years, but for several turnarounds they have been extended.

In her letter to parents, Byrd-Bennett said that turnaround schools have improved twice as fast as the CPS district-average.

“We want to provide your child with access to the same opportunities to boost their chance of academic success, which they will receive next school year if this proposal is approved,” she wrote.

Yet parents point out that many of the schools run by AUSL are not high-performers. Only one turnaround school, Morton, is a Level 1 school. And one of the closing schools, Bethune, is a turnaround.

Mathew Johnson, a parent at Dewey Elementary, says 98 percent of parents signed a petition saying they did not want their school given to AUSL. He says the school’s new administration seems to be on the right track and is doing a turnaround of its own.

“We are not afraid to hold the administration accountable,” says Johnson, who serves on the local school council.

Costs and savings

Because so many of the so-called “welcoming,” turnaround and co-locating schools lack resources, CPS officials will spend big money to get them up to par. In April, the Board of Education approved a supplemental capital budget that the district plans to finance with a $329 million bond.

About $155 million of that will go toward improvements at the receiving schools and another $60 million will fix up schools that are slated to be turned around or co- located with another school.

For the next 30 years, CPS will have to pay $25 million in interest and principal on the bond. This expense was not factored into the $43 million that CPS officials say they will save by undertaking these school actions.

CPS leaders have repeatedly cited budget problems as a rationale for closings–yet one reason CPS is facing perpetual large deficits is its already-existing debt. In the upcoming fiscal year, the district’s payment on principal and interest is scheduled to rise by about $100 million to $475 million.

Capital cost savings are also not likely to be higher than estimated. CPS officials lowered their original capital savings estimate and say the district will save $437 million over the next decade by not having to repair or maintain the 50-some buildings they are shuttering.

But only six of the closing schools have had recent assessments to determine their capital needs.  In all of these cases, the updated assessments caused CPS to lower its savings estimate.

In order for the district to save real money from closing schools, it would have sell off shuttered schools and lay off a lot of teachers, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate for the Philadelphia Research Institute, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trust.

CPS officials say they are going to work with city department heads to figure out what to do with vacant buildings, but there is no specific plan in place.

CPS has sought to steer the discussion away from teacher layoffs, though the closing schools have about 1,100 teachers.

“Many of these teachers will follow their students to welcoming schools per the joint CTU-CPS agreement included in last year’s teachers’ contract, which allows tenured teachers with Superior or Excellent ratings to follow students if their position is open at the welcoming school,” according to a CPS fact sheet.

But school closings will likely mean that class sizes will be bigger in the welcoming schools than in the closing ones, meaning that fewer teachers will be needed for the same number of students.  A quarter of class sizes at closing and welcoming schools have fewer than 20 students—way below recommended sizes of 28 for primary grades and 31 for intermediate grades.

Not including these affected schools, only 9 percent of schools have such small class sizes.

Changing demographics, changing landscape

CPS officials have stressed that the main reason schools need to close is that 145,000 fewer school-age children live in the city than in 2000. But, as many have pointed out, enrollment in CPS has declined by much less: In September of 2013, CPS had 32,000 fewer students than in September of 2000.

Neighborhood schools have been hit hard by the district’s opening of new “schools of choice,” whether magnet schools, charter schools or selective enrollment schools. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data found that in 14 predominantly black South Side and West Side communities that CPS defines as “underutilized,”an average of 54 percent of elementary students attend their neighborhood school. In other communities, two-thirds of elementary students attend their neighborhood school.

If all of the school actions are approved on Wednesday, the landscape of public education will continue to change–especially for students in particular neighborhoods,

Next fall, CPS will run about 84 percent of public elementary schools in Chicago, down from 86 percent this year. The rest will be run by private entities, most by charter operators or AUSL.

The shifting landscape will result in fewer neighborhood schools—schools where students are guaranteed a spot if they live within the attendance boundaries. In 2000, nearly 98 percent of elementary school students attended neighborhood schools.

Also next fall, the percentage of elementary schools with attendance boundaries will drop to 70 percent, down from 75 percent this year (should all closings be approved and with the planned opening of 10 more elementary charter schools).

CPS officials say this might be the wave of the future as they try to increase choices, without increasing the number of buildings in the district’s portfolio.

For parents like Miranda, the shift means one of two things:  taking their children further from home to get to the new neighborhood school, or filling out several applications to a ‘school of choice,’ then hoping and praying that they win a spot.

Like so many parents in the past few months, Miranda says going further away from home poses increased danger. Miranda is worried about a busy street that her children would have to cross to get to Jenner. Other parents in her school say that there’s an entrenched rivalry between Jenner and Manierre students, so much so that teams from the two schools aren’t even allowed to play each other in sports. They worry about fights and point to nasty posts on Facebook by Jenner students threatening those at Manierre.

Miranda says she doesn’t think this would be a problem at Newberry, LaSalle, Skinner North or Franklin—all of which are closer to Manierre than Jenner.

But these are all magnet or selective schools and assigning children to them is not the way CPS works these days.

Secretary Duncan: Keep Charters Out of the Muck, Please

July 09, 2009

by Gordon MacInnes

Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.

Wrong audience. Bad idea.

If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.

To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.

Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.

1.  The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.

2.  The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.

3.  NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.

4.  The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.

5.  There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.

Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.

The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.

Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.

Kelley Williams-Bolar’s Long, Winding Fight to Educate Her Daughters

by Julianne Hing I Wednesday, May 16 2012 on COLORLINES

Kelley Williams-Bolar is giving a speech in the dark. The Ohio mom is rattling off the standard remarks she’s delivered in public appearances since being catapulted onto the national stage last year. It’s an unseasonably warm day and the lights in the room are off, her face lit only by the glow of the computer screen in her father’s home. The address on the door outside is the one she used on her now-famous falsified documents—the ones that landed her in jail for nine days for illegally enrolling her daughters in a neighboring public school district.

“First, I talk about how I received my indictments, and then I give the laundry list of stipulations for my probation,” says Williams-Bolar, who is halfway through her two-year sentence. The 42-year-old single mother, with an otherwise spotless criminal record, is not allowed to drink, must submit to drug tests and reports monthly to a probation officer. She had to perform 80 hours of community service and pay $800 in restitution, as well as the cost of Summit County’s prosecution against her.

“I had to do a DNA test and swab my cheek like I was a bank robber,” Williams-Bolar says. She reaches for the letter outlining the terms of her probation. “I start with this everywhere I go, because I don’t ever want this to happen to another parent.”

As she moves into the rest of her speech, her voice, already warm and friendly, slows into a smooth, practiced delivery. Her remarks are broad but forceful. She calls for an end to educational inequality and the policies that landed her in jail. She wants more choices for parents whose kids are stuck in under-performing or unsafe schools. In February, she announced the formation of the Ohio Parents Union, part of a growing national network dedicated to giving parents exactly that kind of power. In the past year, Kelley Williams-Bolar has morphed from a desperate mom to an impassioned activist at the center of one of the nation’s most talked about shifts in education reform: the rapidly expanding role of parents in shaping dramatic overhauls of public schools.

Parents are no longer running just the bake sales and attending PTA meetings. All over the country, parents are joining—or being organized by—a movement that aims to spur more competition between schools and, ostensibly, better academic results for kids. Williams-Bolar, radicalized by her brush with the law, has joined the fray.

But as a mother, public school staffer, and now an activist, Williams-Bolar’s ordeal is also a bracing case study of a system that treats high-quality education as a commodity to be earned and parceled out, instead of the public good it’s commonly thought to be. In an era when more and more struggling school districts are turning to the private sector to solve their problems, the question everyone is grappling with now is basic: Can free market principles save public schools?

Tale of Two School Districts

Before her name became a fixture in the local newspaper, and before some activists declared her the “Rosa Parks of education,” Kelley Williams-Bolar was a regular parent trying to look out for her daughters.

“I was just a mom,” Williams-Bolar insists.

She works as a classroom aide for students with special needs in Akron Public Schools, and has been employed by the district on and off in some capacity since 1992. “From Asperger’s to Downs to autism, we deal with it all,” she says. She says that helping students with disabilities comes easy to her in part because her mom did similar work, and it seems true. She still spots students past and present in her neighborhood and tracks their progress. In the parking lot of an Applebee’s, she stops a former student and they exchange warm hellos. “He’s done well for himself, he’s in college now,” she says. She talks about their educational challenges and the progress that they worked to overcome. She rattles off their siblings’ names. It’s work she plainly enjoys.

Williams-Bolar did this work part-time for years, because she was married and in school herself part-time. But after getting divorced and moving into a home with the help of Akron’s public housing authority, she had to begin looking for full-time work to support her daughters. That changed things in her life; suddenly, she wasn’t around as often to mind her daughters, Kayla, then 13, and Jada, then 9.

It wasn’t until someone broke into their home in 2006 that Williams-Bolar started considering other school options. No one was home when it happened, but it left her rattled. “I worried about their safety. I’ve got two girls and they’re growing up. I couldn’t have them walking home alone from school,” Williams-Bolar said, careful not to indict Akron Public Schools, her employer. “I had taken care of my father, and he has taken care of me. I knew that he would be home to look after the girls.”

Williams-Bolar insists she was motivated primarily by these safety concerns when she took her kids out of Akron schools, not by the district’s poor academic performance. But the difference between its record and that of the Copley-Fairlawn School District, where her father’s house is located, is stark.

For the 2010-2011 year, Akron Public Schools met state-prescribed performance goals on just five of 26 categories of performance—such as high school graduation rates and standardized testing scores for reading and math—while Copley-Fairlawn School District met all 26 of its state benchmarks. That same academic year, Akron Public Schools failed to meet its yearly goals for test score improvement, which are set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. It was the seventh consecutive year that the district failed.

In the fall of 2006, Williams-Bolar enrolled Kayla and Jada in Copley-Fairlawn, using her father’s address. The district’s enrollment forms are extensive. It does not have open enrollment; to go to school there a student must either reside within its borders or pay a $9,000 annual tuition. Williams-Bolar, who last year made $28,000, couldn’t afford that kind of fee. So she listed her father’s address on the forms. When it came time to renew her driver’s license, she put down her father’s address as her primary one. Eventually, she also listed her father’s address with her credit union and with her employer. Her daughters were enrolled in the district for two school years, from 2006 through 2008.

KWB_paper_journal.jpgBy the time Williams-Bolar was indicted for this act, and later sentenced to 10 days in jail, her mug shot had been splashed across TV stations and newspapers for months. Her name would stay in the media for many weeks more as the nation erupted in shock over her case.

Williams-Bolar became a lightning rod for education reformers of all stripes. Petitions were set up by online organizing groups like Moms Rising and Color of Change, and together with one organized by a Massachusetts woman named Caitlin Lord garnered 180,000 signatures calling for Gov. John Kasich to pardon Williams-Bolar. The Taiwanese tabloid news animation group Next Media Animation even documented her story in one of their popular videos—something that Williams-Bolar is bemused by to this day. After being released from jail, she flew out to Los Angeles for a brutal taping of the Dr. Phil Show.

Williams-Bolar recounts all of this while sitting on the front stoop of her home more than a year later. Her life as a parent, and now an activist, is a far cry from the loud headlines her prosecution attracted. As she talks, she’s interrupted by a neighbor who’s amusing his toddler son by rolling his pickup truck in reverse, then neutral, then reverse, then neutral and back again. Together, they roll up and down the driveway, to the boy’s unending delight. Williams-Bolar and the father chat a bit, and the child’s silly, drooling grin is too precious to turn away from.

These days, say “Kelley Williams-Bolar” in Ohio and she represents a whole lot more than this affable neighbor. Most folks know who she is and at least a bit about her case, more if they have strong opinions about what she did for her daughters. Since being released from jail, she’s tried to keep to herself. She says that her political activism has made her unpopular on her job, at Buchtel High School. Still, she moves with ease throughout her community. She is at home in Akron, but fighting to move past the memories of her case.

Williams-Bolar’s attempt to ease her family from Akron to Copley came at precisely the wrong time. Copley-Fairlawn had been waging an aggressive war against parents who committed this kind of school residency fraud. The state consistently rates the district as “excellent,” which is the second-highest evaluation among six possible ratings. That makes it a popular magnet for parents all over the county. To its administrators and many of its parents, people like Williams-Bolar are thieves, literally stealing their “excellent” schools.

Copley-Fairlawn deployed a range of tactics to root out illegal enrollments. Among other things, the district hired private investigators to track parents, which is a common move for school districts taking a hard line on enrollment. In San Francisco, administrators did a similar thing, and forced offending parents to pay the cost of the investigation. In Washington D.C., City Council Chairman Kwame Brown introduced a bill last year that would set up a hotline for parents to report commuters who drive in from out of state and drop their kids off at D.C. schools.

School residency fraud is common, but criminal prosecutions are rare. Still, when they happen, they tend to happen to people like Williams-Bolar. Last year Tanya McDowell, a Connecticut parent who also happened to be a poor black mom, was convicted of larceny for literally stealing her son’s education when she enrolled him in a neighboring school district. “I just want to know: When does it become a crime to seek a better education for your child?” McDowell asked at the time, the Norwalk Patch reported.

School districts have answered by repeating a similar line: their coffers are only so deep, and because so much of public school funding comes from local property taxes, educating out-of-district students is an unfair burden for actual residents.

In 2008, Copley-Fairlawn stepped up its campaign by announcing a $100 bounty to anyone who turned in another family. Williams-Bolar remembers receiving a postcard in the mail announcing the reward to families throughout the district. “I guess it’s not just me, then,” Williams-Bolar recalls feeling. Plus, she was already deeply immersed in a process to make her daughters’ enrollment legal.

But by the time the postcard arrived, the district had been investigating Williams-Bolar for some time. A private investigator assigned to tail her kept watch outside her Akron home for months, documenting her family’s nights spent away from their father’s Copley address.

A Marketplace of Reforms

This past March Williams-Bolar packed her probation letter and headed off to speak at a Connecticut school reform rally. It was to be her most high-profile event as a newly minted education reform activist. The event was aimed at parents advocating Gov. Daniel Malloy’s reform agenda, which is rooted in a school choice model that deregulates public education, and it had drawn education reform celebrities. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who found national fame by carrying the mantle of aggressive school reform, was there. Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, helped organize it.

Williams-Bolar remembers the rally only in hazy, nervous moments. “I had to talk to myself onstage. I said, ‘Look. You’re here for a reason. Get yourself over to the mic and say what you came to say.’ ” The Hartford Courant reported that around 75 people were in the crowd that day. “People told me afterward that I brought people to tears, and I was like, ‘Did I?’ I don’t even remember seeing anyone in the crowd.”

But not everyone has been moved to tears by the controversial Parent Union movement to which Willams-Bolar has lent her story and energy. She says one of her first and most surprising realizations as a new activist has been just how polarized the school reform debate is. “You think everything is for a common cause, but it’s not. I was naïve about the conversation,” she says.

The day the announcement of her new Ohio Parents’ Union hit the local news was a hard one, she says. “The very next day at work, staff didn’t talk to me,” she recalled. “After the Parent Union was announced it didn’t take a lot to realize some of them were opposing it.”

The suite of school reform policies that dominate the mainstream discourse today, from school choice schemes and charter school expansion to teacher evaluation overhauls and the weakening of collective bargaining agreements, are fundamentally grounded in principles of market-based competition. Schools are products, teachers are laborers and students and parents are consumers.

In the case of vouchers, if parents are unhappy with the quality of the education at a school, they can pick up capital via their taxpayer dollars and move to an approved private school. In Ohio, that amounts to $4,250 annually for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade, and $5,000 per year for high school students who take part in the state’s EdChoice program. Ohio’s voucher system caps participation in the program at 60,000 students, but voucher advocates in the state point out that the program is at capacity. Parents are demanding still more options for their children.

Akron Public Schools received a “continuous improvement” designation in the Ohio state evaluations—the third from worst of six possible designations. As a result, it has been losing both students and the state money that comes with them to the voucher program. Just under 700 of the district’s 23,000 students took part in the voucher program this year, and the district is set to forfeit $2.7 million in state aid this year alone—money that instead has gone to private schools.”*

Some schools in the district are waging an aggressive marketing campaign to hold onto, or win back, families in the neighborhood. In the beginning of the year, Akron Public Schools sent out a 12-page brochure to parents who had removed their children to advertise the district’s offerings, including open enrollment, which makes the district open to even students who don’t live within its borders, and vocational programs and stable schools. Sending out the mailer, the Akron Beacon Journal reported, cost $6,000.

Williams-Bolar says she saw the symptoms of all this in staff meetings in Buchtel Public Schools, where administrators worried about the hemorrhaging of students encouraged staffers to think of the school as a business and to treat parents and students with outstanding customer service.

“I never thought of it that way,” Williams-Bolar says, remembering sitting in a staff meeting perplexed at the idea. The thing is, Kelley Williams-Bolar, who went to ridiculous lengths to be an informed and aggressive education consumer, could well be the poster child for the problems with the paradigm.

The worry of many is that voucher programs and school choice schemes amount to the privatization of public schools. Public tax dollars are being siphoned away from institutions that have historically been considered a public good, and not a commodity. And, critics argue, even the most comprehensive research on vouchers and school choice schemes show that they don’t lead to any meaningful gains in test scores.

Yet to parents fed up with the slow-moving bureaucracy of public schools, school choice schemes have an important narrative appeal. That fact is not lost on choice advocates, who have seized on parents as the new vanguard for pushing school choice, voucher and overhaul plans. The meme of parental empowerment has become a rallying cry, and wedge; who could be opposed to parental empowerment? But the role that some reformers imagine parents filling is narrowly defined, as are the intended reforms.

Privatization and competition in and of itself is not a problem, argues Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University. Outsourcing work that is “harnessed to public objectives” can often help public entities meet people’s social needs, Henig says, and doesn’t always come at the expense of the public good. But systemic privatization can lead to the long-term weakening of democracy when private entities operate without full transparency and outside of the full visibility of the public.

“Part of the problem is the simple notion of informed consumers as distinct from informed citizens,” Henig said. “Both the government and private actors can impinge upon your sense of being able to control your life—most people need to be able to act in both realms, both as consumers and as citizens who act to exercise their rights within democratic institutions, to either create better schools or to more closely regulate private providers.”

Williams-Bolar readily acknowledges that much of this hostile, increasingly arcane debate is new to her. “It’s a bad issue. I wouldn’t know how to even begin to solve it,” she said one afternoon over iced tea. “But I do know we’ve got to stop blaming and get the ball rolling.”

She knows as well that notions of democracy can be abstract ideas to parents who are fed up with their district schools. After pulling her daughters out of Copley schools, during her prosecution, Williams-Bolar enrolled her older daughter Kayla in a public high school and her younger daughter Jada in a private middle school, with the help of Ohio’s EdChoice program. She’s happy with the private school, and doesn’t like the idea that any entity would limit her options.

“Akron Public Schools wants to keep us all here so we can suffer while they get it right,” she said. “My daughters don’t have a second chance at their education.”

Winners and Losers

On Oct. 26, 2007, Williams-Bolar was called into a residency hearing with Copley-Fairlawn district staffers, who presented her with their evidence that she’d been stealing her daughters’ public education. They offered her a set of options, each of which included significant costs. The one that seemed most feasible was for Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward, to claim a Grandparent Power of Attorney, which is a legal designation that would name him as the girls’ guardian for the purposes of their education. A week after the hearing, Williams-Bolar filed for the change in Ohio Juvenile Court. Soon thereafter, she started receiving invoices from Copley-Fairlawn, billing the family $850 a month each for Kayla and Jada. The family refused to pay these bills.

The Grandparent Power of Attorney was eventually denied in June of 2008, because Williams-Bolar’s ex-husband didn’t sign off on the agreement, according to her lawyer. Life can be messy that way. The district also opposed the filing. Still, she was confident she’d attempted to handle the situation in a legal manner. The official denial came just weeks before the school year ended, and she didn’t enroll her daughters back in Copley-Fairlawn schools the following year.

Nonetheless, in October 2009, Williams-Bolar and her father were indicted for falsifying records.

“Kelley’s point was she thought she was trying to get the Grandparent Power of Attorney,” says her attorney David Singleton. “She didn’t think she should pay tuition, which she couldn’t afford anyway. She’s not a wealthy person, which is beside the point.”


Between 2005 and 2011, Copley-Fairlawn schools discovered 48 cases of school residency fraud; Williams-Bolar’s was the only case that ever ended up in court. “Every family except Ms. Williams-Bolar agreed to either pay the non-resident tuition rate, move into the district or remove their children from the school,” Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a statement to Colorlines.com.

“Ms. Williams-Bolar repeatedly refused to cooperate for many months, thus her case was turned over to my office for prosecution,” Walsh continued, underlining that falsifying information on government documents amounts to a felony offense. Walsh said she was compelled by the evidence. “Ms. Williams-Bolar refused the options presented to her that would have prevented felony charges.”

The Copley-Fairlawn School District insists that its hands were tied as well. In an interview with Colorlines, Superintendent Brian Poe said the district went to great lengths to resolve the issue without legal action, but was forced to hand over evidence to Walsh’s office.

Pinning down exactly who controlled the levers in Williams-Bolar’s case is difficult, as everyone seemed interested in making her a household name. After the presiding judge Patricia Cosgrove handed down her sentence, she said she hoped Williams-Bolar’s case would serve as an example to others. “I felt some punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school districts,” Cosgrove told ABC.

Cosgrove spoke an uneasy truth: prosecuting Kelley Williams-Bolar seemed like an easy way to warn off others. But not every family is as vulnerable as moms like Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell.

Take the case of Mark Ebner, a Columbus, Ohio, parent who illegally enrolled his children in a neighboring suburban school district. Williams-Bolar’s attorney, Singleton, considers the case illustrative. The Ebner family’s primary residence was a $1 million property just outside the suburban district’s borders. When Ebner found out that private investigators were tailing him, the Columbus Dispatch reported, he arranged for a house swap with relatives inside the district—and then sued the district for spying on him. The same year that Williams-Bolar and her daughters were swallowed up by her court case, the Ebners were handily defeating the rules.

The point, Singleton said, is that school residency fraud—far from being limited to poor black parents—is an activity that parents of all classes engage in. But those with the financial means and social capital to finagle their way out of sticky situations escape the punishments and public shaming Williams-Bolar faced. Like in any marketplace, the more capital you have, the better you’ll fare.

Williams-Bolar doesn’t deny that she falsified the documents, and accepts full responsibility for what she did, but is also still confounded by the whole thing.

“They always treated [my family’s homes] as his house or my house, his house or my house,” Williams-Bolar said. “This is a family house. I help my father pay the bills, I help mow the lawn, I cook and clean for him. The girls have their own room here, I have my own room here.”

In the economy of public education, though, it’s less about squishy ideas of families and homes and more about concrete goods like houses and addresses.

“We have a community that has made it clear to us that they want to provide an education for students who live within our district boundaries,” insists Superintendent Poe. He says that he was particularly disappointed in the way the case was handled by the media. “It was being portrayed as if we didn’t care for the children. But we always sit down with families and are very open. We just want families to be forthright.”

‘I Turn No One Down’

Which is why advocates of parental power and choice all over the country are so compelled by Williams-Bolar’s story. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of Kelley Williams-Bolars in Alabama,” says Marcus Lundy, who works on workforce development and education reform issues in the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. “The intent is to try to get her to Birmingham to tell her story because her story is the story of many people who live in one area but are limited by their zip code into poor and underperforming schools.”

Lundy wants Williams-Bolar to help advocate for HB 541, a hotly contested bill which would have authorized the creation of 20 charter schools in the state. It passed the Senate, but failed in the House in the waning days of the legislative session.

“If people take inventory of some of the maneuvering that parents have had to do historically to take advantage of the better school systems they would figure that there is no need to hide, to cheat, to lie, to stretch the truth when all they’d have to do is take advantage of parental choice or one educational option of what charter schools would allow,” Lundy says. “And everything would be above the board.”

Williams-Bolar is ready to lend her time to campaigns like Lundy’s—and to any and everything that just may get the “ball rolling,” as she put it. “I don’t say no to anything,” she says. “I turn no one down.”

But her activism is something she has to juggle along with other basic struggles to keep her family afloat. Last week, Williams-Bolar’s father, who Summit County also prosecuted, passed away in prison from complications related to a stroke he suffered in January. Williams spent much of his jail time hospitalized, and had just a month left in his yearlong prison sentence for unrelated fraud charges that arose during the fight with Copley schools.

In September of last year following an international outcry amplified by multiple groups’ online organizing campaigns, Gov. John Kasich, who is a proponent of school choice and voucher schemes, went against the recommendations of the Summit County prosecutors and the Ohio parole board and reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

In her father’s living room, she keeps her pardon certificate in the center of the mantle. “I consider these my freedom papers,” Williams-Bolar said. Prior to his passing away, she planned to move back in with him at his Copley Township home so she could be there to take care of him during his transition. Now with his passing, her plans are up in the air.

She still sees her future as an uncertain, but hopeful swath of new possibility. This month the family will celebrate Kayla’s high school graduation. Jada, Williams-Bolar’s younger daughter, is headed to a private high school next year and will qualify for tuition help from Ohio’s voucher program. Williams-Bolar spent months preparing an application to the exclusive Catholic all-girls’ school in Akron, and when the acceptance letter arrived she was decidedly happier than her daughter, who wanted to go to a co-ed high school. The tony girls school is tucked away on a verdant campus, and is a top-performing school.

“I told her even one year here will help set you up for good things to come down the line,” Williams-Bolar said. “I told her, ‘You’ll see.’ “

If you think in-depth stories like this are important, please donate today to support Colorlines.com.

*A previous version of this story incorrectly included charter school transfers in the EdChoice voucher program. Also, the story has been updated to note that Copley-Fairlawn schools opposed Williams-Bolar’s filing to give her father Grandparent Power of Attorney.

Flunking the Test

The American education system has never been better, several important measures show. But you’d never know that from reading overheated media reports about “failing” schools and enthusiastic pieces on unproven “reform” efforts. Fri., March 30, 2012.

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.

Fareed Zakaria is worried about the state of American education. To hear the CNN host and commentator tell it, the nation’s schools are broken and must be “fixed” to “restore the American dream.” In fact, that was the title of Zakaria’s primetime special in January, “Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.” Zakaria spent an hour thumbing through a catalog of perceived educational woes: high dropout rates, mediocre scores by American students on international tests, inadequate time spent in classrooms, unmotivated teachers and their obstructionist labor unions. “Part of the reason we’re in this crisis is that we have slacked off and allowed our education system to get rigid and sclerotic,” he declared.

This is odd. By many important measures – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America’s educational attainment has never been higher. Moreover, when it comes to education, sweeping generalizations (“rigid and sclerotic”) are more dangerous than usual. How could they not be? With nearly 100,000 public schools, 55 million elementary and secondary students and 2.5 million public school teachers currently at work in large, small, urban, suburban and rural districts, education may be the single most complex endeavor in America.

Zakaria’s take, however, may be a perfect distillation of much of what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of education. The prevailing narrative – and let’s be wary of our own sweeping generalizations here – is that the nation’s educational system is in crisis, that schools are “failing,” that teachers aren’t up to the job and that America’s economic competitiveness is threatened as a result. Just plug the phrase “failing schools” into Nexis and you’ll get 544 hits in newspapers and wire stories for just one month, January 2012. Some of this reflects the institutionalization of the phrase under the No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark 2001 law that ties federal education funds to school performance on standardized tests (schools are deemed “failing” under various criteria of the law). But much of it reflects the general notion that American education, per Zakaria, is in steep decline. Only 20 years ago, the phrase was hardly uttered: “Failing schools” appeared just 13 times in mainstream news accounts in January of 1992, according to Nexis. (Neither Zakaria nor CNN would comment for this story.)

Have the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

As the son and husband of schoolteachers, I can’t say I’m unbiased on this subject. But as a journalist, I can’t help but see the evident flaws in some of the reporting about education – namely, a lack of balance and historical context, and a willingness to accept the most generic and even inflammatory characterizations at face value. Journalists can’t be faulted for reporting the oftentimes overheated rhetoric about educational “failure” from elected officials and prominent “reformers” (that’s what reporters are supposed to do, after all). But some can certainly be faulted for not offering readers and viewers a broader frame to assess the extent of the alleged problems, and the likelihood that the proposed responses will succeed.

Check out some of the 544 articles that mentioned “failing schools” in January; they constitute an encyclopedia of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting and unchallenged assumptions. In dozens and dozens of articles, the phrase isn’t defined; it is simply accepted as commonly understood. “Several speakers said charter schools should only be allowed in areas now served by failing schools,” the Associated Press wrote of a Mississippi charter school proposal. The passive construction of the phrase is telling: The schools are failing, not administrators, superintendents, curriculum writers, elected officials, students or their parents.

The running mate of “failing schools” in education stories is “reform.” The word suggests a good thing – change for the sake of improvement. But in news accounts, the label often is implicitly one-sided, suggesting that “reformers” (such as proponents of vouchers or “school choice”) are more virtuous than their hidebound opponents. Journalists rarely question the motives or credentials of “reformers.” The Hartfort Courant hit the “reformer-failing schools” jackpot when it reported, “Like most people seeking education reform this year..the council wants policies that assure excellent teaching, preschool for children whose families can’t afford it, and help for failing schools.”

One reason schools seem to be “failing” so often in news accounts is that we simply know more than we once did about student performance. Before NCLB, schools were measured by averaging all of their students’ scores, a single number that mixed high and low performers. The law required states to “disaggregate” this data – that is, to break it down by race, poverty and other sub-groups. One beneficial effect of the law is that it showed how some of these groups – poor children and non-English speakers, for example – lag children from more privileged backgrounds. But rather than evidence of a “crisis,” this new data may simply have laid bare what was always true but never reported in detail.

What or who was responsible for the poorest performing schools? Quite often, news media accounts have pointed the finger at a single culprit – teachers. In late 2008, Time magazine featured the District of Columbia’s then-School Chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover wielding a broom to symbolize her desire to sweep out underperforming instructors. The magazine endorsed her approach not just as prudent but as scientific: “The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching,” wrote reporter Amanda Ripley, citing “decades of research.” This view – a favorite of wealthy education “reformers” such as Bill Gates and real estate developer Eli Broad – was also a theme in the critically adored documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” which featured Rhee.

But like “failing schools” and “crisis,” the phrase “ineffective teachers” has become media shorthand (it appeared 136 times in news accounts during January alone, Nexis says). And given the many factors that affect learning, it also looks like scapegoating. NPR’s Tovia Smith, for example,concluded her story in early March about a program that holds back third graders who are having trouble reading this way: “As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it’s the school that should flunk for failing to teach.”

The notion that education is in “crisis” – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite. While few reporters ever mention it, anxiety over the nation’s educational achievement is probably older than the nation. Zakaria’s concern that American students aren’t being prepared for the modern workforce echoes the comments of business leaders at the turn of the century – the 19th century. Then as now, they worried that schools weren’t producing enough educated workers for an economy undergoing rapid technological change.

Nor are the fears that international competitors are bypassing us without precedent. Five months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in October 1957, Life magazine contrasted the rigorous academic workload and extracurricular activities of a Moscow teenager (physics and chemistry courses, chess club) with the carefree lifestyle of a Chicago schoolboy (sock hops and soda shop dates with his girlfriend). The cover line: “Crisis in Education.” Cold War worries gave way to fears that Japan was gaining on us in the 1980s; the Reagan-era education reform manifesto “A Nation at Risk” warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” was threatening “our very future as a nation and a people.”

“The idea that we have a crisis in American education, that there is pervasive failure, starts with policy makers,” says Pedro Noguera, the eminent education researcher and New York University professor. “This is the line we hear in D.C. and in state capitals. There are certainly areas in which we’re lacking, but when you report it that way, it doesn’t at all acknowledge the complexity of the situation [and] where we’re doing quite well. The discussion is quite simplistic. I’m not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity.”

Noguera praises some of the journalism about education, such as work by the New York Times and NPR, two outlets that have full-time, veteran reporters covering the subject. He also noted a “Dan Rather Reports” program on the little-seen HDNet channel last year that explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement.

The news media’s general portrayal may help explain a striking disconnect in public attitudes about public education. Since 1984, a year after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the Gallup Organization has asked parents to assess their local schools, and the public to rate schools generally. In 2011, the percentage of parents who gave their children’s school an A grade was at its highest ever (37 percent), whereas only 1 percent of respondents rated the nation’s schools that way. Why the disparity in perceived quality? Gallup asked people about that, too. Mostly, it was because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

The leading, or at least most widely viewed, source of education reporting is NBC News, which covers the topic on multiple programs and platforms – “NBC Nightly News,” the “Today” show, MSNBC and Telemundo, among others. It is the only commercial broadcast network to employ a full-time education reporter, Rehema Ellis. NBC is so devoted to education reporting that in 2010 it began branding its coverage under its own banner, “Education Nation.” It has also gone beyond mere reporting by hosting an annual education “summit” that last fall brought together 10 governors, former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, educators and other dignitaries at its Rockefeller Center headquarters to discuss ways to improve education.

“We’ve really tried to put a very bright spotlight” on this topic, NBC News President Steve Capus said in an interview. “We felt the subject matter was important, and it wasn’t getting as much attention as it deserved.” Result? Capus, who used to cover school board meetings in the Philadelphia area as a young stringer, proudly points to an Aspen Institute study showing that one in five Americans has heard of “Education Nation” and almost one in 10 has seen some of its reporting.

But while “Education Nation” occasionally escapes the “crisis-in-education” paradigm, its gaze is squarely on perceived flaws and, yes, failing schools. “America’s public school students are struggling,” said Ellis, beginning a “Nightly News” story during the NBC-sponsored summit in September. The segment included an NBC-commissioned poll showing widespread public dissatisfaction with public schools. Gallup’s multiyear findings on the same topic weren’t mentioned.

In the past six months, NBC has done “Education Nation” stories on online public schools; on the success of Shanghai’s students on an international exams; on “unschooling” (a less structured version of home-schooling); and on a “wave” of new “parent trigger” laws that allow parents to petition for dramatic changes in “troubled” local schools, including firing teachers (in fact, only three states have enacted such laws).

Yet NBC and “Education Nation” have rarely looked closely at the effect of poverty and class, the single greatest variable in educational achievement. Academic research has shown for many years that poor children, or those born to parents who are poorly educated themselves, don’t do as well in school as better-off students. More recent work by, among others, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children has grown wider since the 1960s, reflecting in part the nation’s growing economic disparity. The problem is vast – some 22 percent of American children live in poverty, the highest among Western democracies.

Instead, NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators. (Zakaria also featured Bill Gates on his CNN special.)

During its first “Education Nation” summit in 2010, for example, “NBC Nightly News” aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, “Measures of Effective Teaching,” which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on “Today” with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, “So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it’s a great credit to them, and it’s a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they’ve put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that’s a big, big step.”

Brokaw also put his gravitas behind Gates and other billionaire education reformers in a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers during the NBC summit in 2011, writing that “Entrepreneurs and captains of industry such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, home building tycoon Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaires in New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, have put education reform and excellence at the top of their personal and financial agenda.” Brokaw didn’t mention the objections to these “reforms” from teachers, nor ask why billionaires should be accorded expert status on education policy in the first place.

(An NBC spokeswoman declined to make Brokaw and Ellis available for comment, saying that the story sounded “negative.”)

NBC News does more than just report on the “reform” movement; it’s also in business with those who are promoting it. Among the corporate sponsors of its “Education Nation” summits are the for-profit education company University of Phoenix, the book publisher Scholastic Inc. and…the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Remember that Aspen Institute study showing broad public awareness of NBC’s “Education Nation” efforts? It was funded by the Gates Foundation.

Capus says such a relationship doesn’t pose a conflict of interest for the network’s journalists because an editorial “firewall” prohibits sponsors from influencing coverage. Nevertheless, representatives of each of these sponsors, including Melinda Gates and Scholastic Senior Vice President Francie Alexander, have appeared repeatedly on “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” to discuss various education proposals and ideas (their financial connection to NBC News has never been disclosed on the air, according to a Nexis search). Meghan Pianta, an NBC spokeswoman, defended using the billionaire couple as a news source because of their “prominence and importance in the education debate.”

Some teachers, on the other hand, can’t help feeling that the network has stacked the deck in favor of the “reform” agenda. NBC’s approach “is beneficial to those who promote privatizing schools, those who peddle tests and tests to prepare for tests, and curriculum based on tests to prepare for tests,” wrote Randy Turner, an English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, on The Huffington Post last fall, as he watched the network cover its own summit. “It is also beneficial to those whose chief goal is to eliminate unions of all kinds, including those representing teachers.”

On a more prosaic level, veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It’s hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s initiative, Race to the Top.

“School systems are crazed about controlling the message,” says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “Access is so constricted.” As a result, she says, “There’s great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it’s just getting worse.”

Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, “Not Much Just Chillin'” (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and “Tested” (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.

What to do? “You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like,” Perlstein says. She adds, “That matters.” Ironically, superintendents and administrators “always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won’t talk to us?”

This compels education journalists to talk to secondary sources: administrators and bureaucrats, labor leaders, politicians and the occasional billionaire. Not necessarily a bad thing, since at the moment, there are perhaps a dozen ideas (tenure reform, vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, etc.) floating around and plenty of disagreement about how or whether to implement them.

But pronouncements and policy nostrums often don’t get the checking they deserve. “Some reporters don’t do enough to synthesize and explain the wealth of peer-reviewed research available on the proposals being batted around,” says Jessica Calefati, an up-and-coming education reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark. For example, if a school district or a state is pushing for teacher merit pay, it behooves a reporter to point out that few studies link merit pay with increased student achievement, she says. Some reporters, says Calefati, “gloss over the nuance.”

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss goes much further, giving her media colleagues an F for legwork. “The mainstream media has failed to do due diligence [on the school reform agenda] for over a decade,” she says. “They bought into the rhetoric of school reform and testing” mandated by No Child Left Behind. As for President Barack Obama’s proposed Race to the Top initiatives, Strauss faults the news media for failing to ask whether “the rhetoric matches the practice. There’s nothing new under the sun. Some of the things that didn’t work 30, 40 or 50 years ago still don’t work….We’ve taken as truth whatever Bill Gates says.”

Strauss points out that leading Democrats, such as Obama, and Republicans have both embraced school choice and charter schools to some degree. This unusual political comity has led some mainstream outlets to position “reform” as a centrist, bipartisan idea, she says. There are a few consistently skeptical voices – she mentions New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, and I’d mention Strauss – but for the most part, she says, the media have romanticized reform figures like Gates and Rhee, and the KIPP Schools, the darlings of the private charter movement.

“The mainstream media hasn’t been digging,” Strauss asserts. “Generally, reporters have gone along with the reform of the day. Well, I’ve got news for you: It’s much more complicated than that.”


Bobby Jindal vs. Public Education

By Diane Ravitch I March 06, 2012 on Bridging Differences

Dear Deborah [Meier],

I went to Lafayette, La., last week to speak to the Louisiana School Boards Association. These men and women, representing their local schools from across the state, are trying to preserve public education in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. Jindal has the backing of the state’s corporate leaders, the nation’s biggest foundations, and some powerful out-of-state supporters of privatization for his sweeping attack on public education.

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher—tenured or not—who was rated “ineffective” by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated “highly effective” for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

The bill is as punitive as possible with respect to public education and teachers. It says nothing about helping to improve or support them. It’s all about enabling students to leave public schools and creating the tools to intimidate and fire teachers. This “reform” is not conservative. I would say it is radical and reactionary. But it is in no way unique to Louisiana.

Gov. Jindal is in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It’s hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or …. There are so many contenders for the title, it’s hard to name them all. They all seem to be working from the same playbook: Remove any professionalism and sense of security from teachers; expand privatization as rapidly as possible, through charters and vouchers; intensify reliance on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools; tighten the regulations on public schools while deregulating the privately managed charter schools. Keep up the attack on many fronts, to confuse the supporters of public education.

The governors appear to be working from the ALEC playbook, ALEC (or the American Legislative Exchange Council) being an organization that shapes model legislation for very conservative state legislators.

Using the right coded language is a very important part of the assault on public education: Call it “reform.” Say that its critics are “defenders of the status quo,” even though the status quo is 10 years of federally mandated high-stakes testing and school closings. If possible, throw mud at the defenders of public education and say that they only have “adult interests” at heart, while the pseudo-reformers—the rich and powerful—are acting only in the interests of children.

Soon after I spoke, Jindal’s newly selected State Superintendent John White had a conference call with reporters to challenge what I said, which was odd because he was not present and did not hear what I said. He had no substantive response to my research review showing that charters, vouchers, and merit pay don’t produce better education. He had no substantive response to my critique of the vagaries of value-added evaluation of teachers. Instead, he pointed to the New Orleans model as a paradigm of “reform,” meaning, I suppose, the benefits of closing down public schools, turning the children over to private management, breaking the teachers’ union, and hiring inexperienced, uncertified teachers.

John White was selected by Jindal to lead the state after Jindal took control of the state board of education last fall. John White had led the New Orleans Recovery School District for only a few months when he was chosen to run the state. He is a former Teach for America teacher and a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Much of his time in New York City was spent closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools, the so-called portfolio approach(like the stock market, where you keep the winners and sell the losers). He had nothing to do with academic matters, with curriculum or instruction. So he is well-suited to what Bobby Jindal is trying to accomplish in Louisiana. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that Arne Duncan applauded Jindal’s appointment of White as state superintendent and called White a “visionary leader.” I guess, in Duncan’s worldview, a “visionary leader” is someone willing to shut down public schools no matter what the parents and local community say.

The New Orleans’ “miracle” is supposed to be evidence for the value of handing public education over to private managers and uncertified teachers. But the state’s own website contradicts that “miracle” narrative. The state education department rated 79 percent of the charters in the Recovery School District as D or F.

The state also reported that the New Orleans Recovery School District was next to last in academic performance of all 72 districts in the state. It has made gains, but only in comparison to its own low base line in 2007.

All this data was compiled before the Jindal takeover of the state board of education. Currently, researchers are having trouble getting any data from the state education department.

Why are the elites of both parties so eager to hand children and public dollars over to private corporations? Why are both parties complicit in the dismantling of public education? Why do so many Democrats at the top advocate what used to be known as the right-wing agenda for education? Is it all about campaign contributions? Why does the media let them get away with it? Why does anyone think that this will be good for our society in the short term or the long term? Why have the monied interests decided to privatize large swaths of public education? What happens to our democracy when the public sector is effectively whittled away or purchased by big money?