About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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Back to the Future in the Bay State: Brockton’s New School-Funding Lawsuit May Be Imminent

A decades-long literacy strategy at Brockton High helped transform the state’s largest, and once poorest-performing, high school

Twenty-five years ago, the Brockton school district prevailed in a lawsuit that served as a key catalyst for the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which radically changed the state’s approach to school funding and turned the Bay State into the gold standard for American education. Now, the town once known as Shoe City, before global competition wiped out Brockton’s major source of employment, is poised, once again, to sue the state, arguing that it is shortchanging students in poor urban districts.

Two years ago, I explained why Brockton might have a case for a new school-funding lawsuit. Last weekend, an excellent article by James Vaznis, in The Boston Globe, outlined the growing inequities between poor Massachusetts cities like Brockton and the wealthiest ones like Weston that now make a lawsuit more likely. Overall, Brockton spent $14,778 per student, during the 2016/2017 school year, while Weston spent $24,458. That meant just $1.28 per student for school supplies in Brockton, a tiny fraction of the $275 spent by Weston. More significantly, Brockton had only $3.43 per student to spend on classroom technology—at a time when state tests are given electronically—while Weston spent $210.56 per student.

“It seems to me you have a basis that the Commonwealth is not doing enough for the neediest districts,” Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under Governor Deval Patrick, told The Globe. “How can the state hold them accountable for results if they are not providing adequate resources.”

I spoke with Aldo Petronio, the Brockton school district’s chief budget officer, and learned that behind the growing inequities in funding for rich and poor school  districts—the very inequities the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) had so painstakingly sought to remedy—are state and federal policies that have served to shortchange poor children for the past decade. Three key factors, in particular, have worked against Brockton’s public schools, as well as many other poor districts in the state: The failure to maintain an “adequate” foundation budget for school districts; a focus on expanding charter schools, rather than supporting public schools; and changes in the way the state calculates the poverty rate for the purposes of providing extra funding to poor school districts.

The bottom line in Brockton is that the district faced a $16 million budget deficit during the 2016/2017 school year, which has led to layoffs, sharp increases in class size and the possibility that Brockton will have to close down one of its middle schools.

The key cause of the ballooning deficits is that for the past several years, the Massachusetts foundation budget formula, which was established by MERA to accurately calculate what it costs to provide an “adequate” education for every Massachusetts child, whether she lives in a rich district or a poor one, has increased by an average of just 2.5 percent a year. During that same period costs—especially those associated with health care and special education—have risen by 3 to 5 percent per year. This has hit poor districts like Brockton particularly hard.

Another problem has been a new charter school foisted on the city by republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Jim Peyser, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and other prominent education-reformers against widespread local opposition, which has cost the city $4 million per year so far in lost funding. That number is expected to balloon to $10 million per year in lost revenues as the charter school is allowed to nearly double in size to 735 students during the next few years.

(Readers of this blog may recall that, in November 2016, Baker and other education reformers backed Question 2, the most expensive charter-school ballot initiative in the country, which was aimed at effectively lifting the cap on charter schools—an effort that voters resoundingly rejected by a 62-to-38 margin. Peyser helped bundle $387,275 donations toward Question 2 and Paul Sagan, a venture capitalist and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, alone contributed close to $600,000, most of that in dark-money. Then, last year, the largest out-of-state backer of Question 2 was slapped with a $426,466 fine for violating campaign finance laws—the biggest such violation in state history.)

Yet another major concern for Brockton is that the state has changed the way it measures poverty, which led to a drastic under-counting of undocumented immigrants—of which Brockton has large numbers. In Massachusetts, schools receive $2,400 extra funding from the state for each poor child they enroll; that’s in addition to about a $6,000 base budget. (Schools also receive extra funds for English Language Learners and special-needs students, among others.)  Historically, for school-funding purposes, poverty was measured by the percentage of students who receive free- and reduced-price lunch. About four yeas ago, the federal government, introduced the so-called Community Eligibility Program (CEP) as an option for schools in districts like Brockton with high concentrations of poor students, making all students in those schools automatically eligible to receive free meals. This approach eliminated “the cost and administrative burden of collecting and processing family applications” at each school and increased the number of students participating in school nutrition programs.

But, once the CEP program was in place, the state began to use data on the number of families already enrolled in its poverty programs, such as food stamps or welfare, to calculate the subsidy schools would receive for their poor students. While that measure worked in most towns and municipalities, it proved devastating for about 5 percent of the state’s urban districts with high numbers of undocumented students, says Petronio.

Immigrants are “not eligible for food stamps or welfare until they’ve been here for five years,” explains Petronio, noting that “through the free-lunch applications you’d pick up” those children. Moreover, under the Trump administration’s campaign against undocumented immigrants, Brockton’s large population of immigrants from Haiti and Cape Verde became especially fearful of registering for state poverty programs. Thus, in Brockton, a district with about 17,000 students where a total of about 14,000 had been eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch in the 2015/2016 school year, over 4,000 children have since been dropped from the rolls. As those students disappeared from the official school-poverty statistics, the district lost an estimated $6 million.

Now, Baker’s most recent school budget has stripped $200 per student from the subsidy schools receive for poor children, which again will hit towns like Brockton hardest.

Unless the state legislature acts to increase funding—or unless Brockton and other poor urban districts sue the state, forcing it to meet its constitutional obligation to provide “adequate funding” for all children—Brockton’s budget problems will only get worse, and are likely to take a toll on its academic programs.

Twenty-five years ago, the state’s remarkable reforms—a bipartisan grand bargain that boosted spending in exchange for increased accountability—helped transform Brockton High, the state’s largest, and one of its then-poorest performing, schools. While Brockton High has continued to maintain relatively strong scores on the MCAS test, a state graduation requirement, its math scores have dipped over the last four years. Its graduation rate also has declined slightly to 87 percent.

The district is now building a coalition with other urban school districts to help defray legal costs, according to Kathleen Smith, the Brockton district superintendent, who says she is also hoping to include interested business people and philanthropists. So far, likely partners include Worcester and Springfield.

The Boston Globe notes that “(l)egislation to update the state funding formula and pump more aid into the public schools, especially the neediest ones, has the support of nearly every state senator” and could forestall a lawsuit. But, so far, Baker has “not indicated he supports” such legislation.

Petronio, meanwhile, points out that to make up for years of under-funding public schools, Massachusetts would need to come up with as much as $1.5 billion, about a third of the state education budget and an amount that would almost inevitably require an increase in the state income tax or sales tax. That’s a conclusion Baker, an anti-tax Republican is unlikely to agree with.

For more on the historic Massachusetts education-reform law, how it turned the Bay State into the gold standard for education, and recent efforts to dismantle the reforms, see my new book After the Education Wars.

Posted in Brockton, MA, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform, public schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Breathless Praise for Success Academy; And Why We Should Be “Terrified”

This week both The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among several other publications, ran prominent stories on Success Academy, the controversial New York City charter-school network.

In particular, Elizabeth Green’s piece about Success Academy and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, aims a nuclear warhead at public schools. Writes Green: “I am more than a little terrified by the conclusion I’ve reached: Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.”

(Similarly, Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine breathlessly exclaimed: Success Academy “has done something no education-policy analyst considered remotely possible: Its schools have closed the achievement gap.”)

It is we—that is American citizens—who should be terrified because Success Academy is entirely in-sync with the Trump era. It is unapologetically anti-democratic, anti-union, segregated and relentlessly test-driven. And, it should be noted, the CMO has not yet graduated a single high school student.

At a time when we are facing an existential threat to our democracy—one enabled by a decades-long obsession with standardized tests that narrowed curriculum and helped kill off civics education—the championing of Success Academy by writer as influential as Elizabeth Green, she is the founding editor of ChalkBeat and author of Building a Better Teacher, is worrying indeed.

Let’s be clear. Judging by its roster of 46 schools, there are potentially thousands of families who are happy with the education Success Academy provides, and many more who might have been if they had won the network’s lottery—though parents have complained of the CMO’s harsh, and even abusive, ‘boot-camp-like” culture—see here and here. Indeed, hundreds, if not thousands of children have been pulled out by their families (or forced out) because of the network’s strict demands for behavioral compliance and its single-focused pursuit of high test scores.

Among the tsunami of mostly glowing articles pegged to the publication of Moskowitz’s memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz, only Lisa Miller’s acid review in The New York Times asks how a defiant rule-breaker like Moskowitz would have fared in one of her own schools. (Moskowitz took a call from Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a nephew’s bar mitzvah to “threaten him with a negative press campaign.”  And she was impudent to her own teachers.) Not well one assumes.

While Green notes that Success Academy students “regularly trounce their peers all across New York on state tests” she never actually gives you the scores. Rebecca Mead does—more on her New Yorker story below: On the latest tests, 95 percent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math and 84 percent in ELA; the comparable citywide scores are 36 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

But Green fails to address key questions about the kind of education Success kids get—and at what cost. She certainly doesn’t question whether the ever-changing, bubble-in test-scores are the best—or even a good–measure of learning. While she acknowledges giving up on democratic control of schools and districts, she never considers the historic, foundational role of public education in a democracy—and the civic cost of autocratic education systems. Nor does Green consider the successful public-school networks amid what she, rightly, describes as the crushing bureaucracy that has often stifled New York City schools—even though she has published stories about them!

Green also glosses over—and, in some cases, omits entirely—the considerable problems with the Success Academy model, including widespread creaming and credible allegations of abusive behavior toward children. Although Green’s own book points out that the best teachers have years of experience, she says not one word about Success Academy’s high teacher attrition rate. Some Success Academy schools lose over half of their teachers each year; few last more than three years.

Nor does she identify the thoughtful critics of Moskowitz, even among pro-charter reformers. “I’m no fan of Eva Moskowitz,” said Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Education Innovation, in an interview for my upcoming book After the Education Wars. “I don’t like the way they get rid of kids. That is a charge that has been made too often now and I think it’s true.”

Another charter-school insider told me that the New York City charter establishment dreaded the possibility that Moskowitz might challenge Mayor Bill de Blasio in the last mayoral race, fearing it would bring too much adverse publicity to the sector. She decided not to run. Moskowitz also reportedly told Trump she didn’t want to be education secretary, before he gave the job to Betsy DeVos.

Fair disclosure: I have never visited a Success Academy school—but not for lack of trying. Almost exactly two years ago, I won a golden ticket to join a select few who would be allowed to tour Success Academy Bronx 1. But almost as quickly, I was disinvited. An educator who attend the tour, filled me on in on what she saw, and I wrote about it here.

However, I have spent over a decade covering both public and charter schools and have seen the rush to judgment, the embrace of miracle schools based solely on a few test scores. I’ve seen poor performing schools–both public and charter. I’ve also seen enduring public-school successes (schools that, decade after decade, have seen their poor minority kids graduate and enroll in college) ignored by media pundits and mainstream education reformers—a key focus of my upcoming book. I have seen promising mom-and-pop charters beg for support from charter gatekeepers who favor large no-excuses CMOs. And I’ve seen the consequences of charter-school expansion policies that flood poor neighborhoods with schools that cherry pick the most promising kids, leaving public schools to cope with children who have formidable problems.

Even a charter proponent like Richard Whitmire concedes that there is no “apples to apples” comparison between traditional public schools and charter management organizations, such as Success Academy. “People, and I have been guilty of this, have compared Success’ scores to traditional public schools and they’re apples and oranges,” says Whitmire. “It would be totally unfair to compare Success to a traditional New York public school that’s in the same building because Success doesn’t fill up its classes. It doesn’t backfill after fourth grade.”

So, unlike Green, I am convinced that the promotion and embrace of education reform a la Success Academy embodies a great danger to our country and our democracy. Here’s why:

Success Academy is at the forefront of an anti-democratic movement to replace public schools with charters, while, at the same time, curtailing government oversight:

 Like most charter schools, Success Academy operates with an unelected corporate board, one heavy on plutocrats who use their wealth to expand charter schools. Most recently, Dan Loeb, the controversial hedge fund manager and board chairman of Success Academy, contributed $1 million in dark money to New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter nonprofit; the contribution became public when its affiliate, Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, was fined $426,466 for violating Massachusetts campaign finance laws—the biggest such violation in state history; FESA had contributed well over a third of the $46 million spent on a referendum aimed at lifting the charter cap in the Bay State. Although the charter lobby outspent the opposition by a wide margin, the ballot initiative, known as Question 2, was roundly defeated by voters.

Moskowitz herself has been at the forefront of battling government oversight of charters. (Charter authorizers provide little or no oversight as long as charters produce high test scores.) She has pressed charter personnel to resist questioning by outsiders, including government officials. Last year a city audit found financial irregularities (though no fraud or criminality); among other things, the audit found that Success Academy billed the education department for special education services “without records to verify that they were provided” to children. Earlier, Moskowitz had sued the New York State controller challenging the state’s right to audit her schools, despite the fact that they receive public funding; a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice ruled in Moskowitz’s favor.

Success Academy fuels the test-score arms race:

I have written here and here and here about New York State’s serial testing debacles, the result of an obsession with standardized tests that has defined education policy throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, and continues to this day.

Green’s article underscores the role of charter networks in exacerbating test mania. Test scores are the principle measure by which Success Academy’s performance is measured. We know nothing of its graduation rates— the network is only graduating its first class of seniors this academic year—let alone how its graduates will fare in college. We do know that attrition at Success charters is very high with the most compliant students, and the best test-takers, surviving. (Mead, in her New Yorker story, points out that Success Academy’s first high school will graduate just 17 students next spring, down from 73 first graders.)

One major problem with the rise of large CMOs is that the competition for a finite pie of philanthropic funding escalates the test-score arms race. This has helped sustain testing regimes that suck the joy and purpose out of learning. It also has marginalized mom-and-pop charters—those educator- and parent-driven local efforts that were the raison d’etre of the charter movement in the first place.

Amplified by its P.R. apparatus and its legions of business supporter, Success Academy pulls in tens-of-millions of dollars in philanthropic donations each year, which it uses to fine-tune its test-production machinery. In the process it has redefined and narrowed the definition of what constitutes a good education among both public schools and charters.

“Oh my gosh, all charters are under the gun when it comes to the scores,” says Vashti Acosta, the principal at Amber Charter School, in East Harlem, which recently opened its second charter school in the Bronx. Amber considered itself lucky to raise $45,000 at its 15th anniversary party a few years ago.

At Amber, the national obsession with test scores has meant more academics at an ever earlier age. The school prides itself on teaching music and art; but those “specials” have been reduced to just one lesson per week. The focus on test scores also helps explain changes in Kindergarten. “That they get gym, recess and art and music helps, but I have to tell you, there’s very little play in Kindergarten,” says Acosta. “Kindergarteners get nap time in the beginning of the year, but in January that disappears.”

Success Academy, like the education-reform establishment, is anti-union even though teacher voice in mostly unionized schools has been a key to improving public-school quality

Most charter management organizations are non-union. And Moskowitz’s political career—she served on the New York City Council and ran for Manhattan borough president—was defined, at least in part, by her battle against the teachers’ union. Moskowitz said her campaign for borough president would serve as the “perfect test case for whether it was possible to stand up to the teachers’ union and live to tell the tale.”

While Moskowitz, a Democrat, lost that race, it has since become acceptable for mainstream Democrats to be anti-union. Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is a case in point.

Yet, few Democrats have asked whether the sharp decline in the labor movement—only 6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized today—has helped build the constituency for Trump, especially in states that once had robust unions, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Politics isn’t the only reason for questioning this anti-union trend. As I point out in my book, none of the most promising reforms—in New York City or Massachusetts—were impeded by strong unions; when reformers collaborate with teachers and parents to improve education quality, unions rarely stand in the way.

Charter advocates ignore public-school success stories hiding in plain sight

Forty years ago, it was the successful reforms initiated by Tony Alvarado, best known for his superintendency of New York City’s District 2 and 4, and the founding of the small-, progressive-schools movement by Debbie Meier, the first educator to win a MacArthur genius grant, that grabbed education-reform headlines. It was that movement Sy Fliegel wrote about in his book A Miracle in Harlem.

That experiment lives on in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that has won exemptions from standardized tests, but that has racked up far higher graduation rates and college matriculation rates than traditional public schools. Among students who started a consortium high school in 2010, 77 percent graduated in four years, versus 68 percent for all New York City students. (The vast majority of consortium schools are in New York City.) Among those who became high school freshmen in 2008, 82 percent graduated by 2014, compared with 73 percent citywide.

Green’s Chalkbeat published this about the consortium schools: “The graduation rates are especially high for students with disabilities and English language learners. Nearly 70 percent of ELLs in consortium schools graduate on time, according to the report, compared to about 40 percent across the city. And half of students with disabilities in the consortium schools graduate on time, compared with fewer than a quarter citywide.”

Today there are close to 40 consortium high schools, the vast majority in New York City. In addition, there are numerous elementary- and middle-schools that emulate the consortium schools—comprising an informal network that is far larger, and of longer duration, than Success Academy.

My question for Elizabeth Green: Why does she rate Success Academy above the consortium high schools, and their like-minded elementary and middle schools, especially given that they have survived, indeed thrived, despite the very bureaucracy that Green, rightly, decries?

The consortium and like-minded schools are noteworthy in other respects: Whereas urban charter networks like Success Academy traditionally have been highly segregated, consortium schools aimed to integrate their classrooms from the beginning, and were successful. Nor do consortium schools engage in creaming.

What makes these schools successful is not only their progressive pedagogy, but  also they’re collaborative approach to school improvement—one that gives voice to both teachers and students.

This brings us to Mead’s New Yorker article, which explores Moskowitz’s “quest to combine rigid discipline with a progressive curriculum.”

Mead begins by describing the “highly controlled, even repressive” Success Academy culture: The quiet hallways and carpeting that imbue “even a space occupied by more than two dozen second graders with the hush of a corporate conference room;” the demand that students make eye-contact with their teachers at all times; an almost military obsession with posture, which must always be straight, and pencils, which must be “placed to the right of the desks, aligned with the edge;” the “Cape Canaveral-style countdowns” in which every interaction, every moment is strictly timed.

Now Moskowitz is trying to layer elements of a “progressive” curriculum without loosening the no-excuses culture (Mead tells us that Moskowitz eschews the no-excuses moniker. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…)

Mead writes that when Moskowitz opened her first high school, in 2014, she “hoped to create a more relaxed and collegiate environment…There was to be a lot more free time, in which students would be the stewards of their own studies.”

Moskowitz hired Anna Switzer, a respected progressive educator, to design a curriculum of months-long projects on subjects like the native populations that originally lived on Manhattan Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. While a welcome departure from test-prep, such project-based learning (a key feature of many of the most successful public schools during the Bloomberg years), relies on the self-directed exploration and creativity of students and has run up against the limits of Success Academy’s strict-discipline culture.

“‘It just didn’t work,’” Andrew Malone, the school’s principal, told Mead. “’Many of the students slacked off academically, and there was a resurgence of behavioral issues, such as lateness to school…Students accustomed to second-by-second vigilance found it difficult to manage their time when left unsupervised.’”

More importantly, project-based learning by itself doesn’t begin to encompass the values of democratic education—the secret sauce—that are foundational to the education philosophy espoused by both John Dewey, the godfather of progressive education, or Debbie Meier. Indeed, Meier’s dictum that a school should be “a community where kids could see the complexity of democracy, and fall in love with it”—has, in the Trump era, never been more important.

As documented in Richard Kahlenberg and Haley Potter’s A Smarter Charter, schools that encourage teacher voice, produce better, richer educational opportunities for children–whether they are progressive or not.

However, both progressive pedagogy and small ‘d” democracy are hard work and time-consuming. For one thing, a successful progressive curriculum relies on highly experienced teachers—unicorns at high-turnover charter networks like Success Academy.

Shael Polakow-Suransky served as the Bloomberg administration’s chief academic officer and is now president of Bank Street College of Education. He told Mead: “There is a reason why there is a continuing pull in human organizations toward authoritarian approaches. You can get a lot done. But what kind of citizens are you producing? What kind of learners are you developing when the core values are around compliance? Can you educate children in an authoritarian context and also empower them to be active agents in their own lives, who think critically and question injustice in the world around them?”

Green doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. However, she does pinpoint a huge challenge, especially for large urban school systems:

[A]s I began work in 2010 on a book about teaching, I started to see why blowing up school districts might not be as crazy an idea as I initially thought. What struck me most is how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools. While those who pursue the profession in other countries are provided with the infrastructure crucial to educating kids effectively—a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum), and a decent training system—teachers in the U.S. are left stranded.

 The reason isn’t terrible union contracts or awful management decisions. The fault, I came to see, lies in the (often competing) edicts issued by municipal, state, and federal authorities, which add up to chaos for the teachers who actually have to implement them. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to start the year focused on one goal—say, improving students’ writing—only to be told mid-year that writing is no longer a priority, as happened just the other day at a Boston school I know of. We could hardly have designed a worse system for supporting good teaching had we tried.

 Green’s answer is to give up on democratic school governance, a position she justifies by noting that voter turnout in school board elections averages between 5 and 10 percent. Charters have “strengthened public education by extracting it from democracy as we know it—and we shouldn’t be surprised, because democracy as we know it is the problem,” she writes.

By that logic we might as well give up on democracy altogether since voter turnout in the 2014 Congressional elections was a miserable 36 percent.

Why not advocate myriad small-bore experiments that work, instead: Policies that free public schools and districts to experiment, and then work to systematically scale the successes? Why not strive to reengage voters at the local level? Surely such ideas are no more blue sky than blowing up the public school system and entrusting it to freewheeling edupreneurs and plutocrats whose chief concern is producing employees for a 21st century work place, not active and engaged citizens.

But wait; that’s a false dichotomy. No healthy democracy in a fast-changing market economy can function without an informed, knowledgeable and intellectually curious citizenry.

Posted in Charter Schools, citizenship, democracy, Education, public schools, Trump | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Record Fine for Campaign-Finance Violation Sheds Light on Dark Money Donors to Bay State Charter Referendum

When the biggest backer of Massachusetts’s recent ballot initiative, which would have effectively eliminated the cap on charter schools, was slapped, this month, with a $426,466 fine for violating campaign finance laws—the biggest such violation in state history—the legal settlement offered a rare look at how dark money operates in political campaigns.

Readers of this blog may recall a post, just before the November 2016 election, that looked at the dark money flowing into Massachusetts, in advance of the referendum, which made Question 2 the most expensive charter-school ballot initiative in the country, ever. The post was written by Peggy Wiesenberg, a Massachusetts attorney and parent of three public-school graduates. At the top of her list was Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy (FESA,) a New York-based group whose contribution to Question 2 equaled well over a third of the $45.9 million spent on the referendum by pro-charter ballot committees, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. (Save Our Public Schools, the ballot committee opposing the referendum, spent just $15.4 million, according to the OCPF.)

Voters defeated the ballot initiative, known as Question 2, by a stunning 62-to-38 margin–an endorsement of Massachusetts public schools, which are rated number one in the nation. But not for lack of efforts by organizations like FESA, which allowed a slew of wealthy contributors to hide their identities and their sizeable contributions in support of the referendum. In some cases individuals contributed twice: Once through a ballot committee that was required, by law, to publish names of contributors, and a second substantially greater contribution, in some cases millions more, via FESA.

At the top of the list of FESA’s secret donors were public officials in the Massachusetts government. Governor Charlie Baker was a leading proponent of Question 2 and backed efforts to impose charter schools in towns, like Brockton, where there was widespread local opposition.

Normally, nonprofits organized under IRS Code 501(3), such as Families for Excellent Schools (FES), don’t have to reveal the names of donors so long as they are not engaging in political activity.  And ordinarily, their affiliated social-welfare nonprofits, organized under IRS Code 501(c)(4), such as FESA, can have some political involvement in electoral politics and keep donors secret, so long as this is not their primary activity. However, if the organization is a vehicle for receiving contributions for a ballot campaign, then the voting public is entitled to know the names of each contributor and the amount donated before the election.

Wiesenberg noted, in her earlier post, that a number of the contributors to Question 2 had backed an earlier 2009 charter-school ballot measure. She wondered why other donors to that initiative did not appear on the Question 2 list of ballot-campaign contributors. Wrote Wiesenberg about the Question 2 funders: “The above lists are almost surely a small number of the deep-pocketed contributors to Question 2. At least a dozen individuals and organizations that contributed to the 2009 initiative do not show up as contributors to the five main Question-2 ballot committees, which are required to disclose donors. Many are likely contributing ‘dark money’ to organizations like DFER and Families for Excellent Schools, instead.”

Massachusetts campaign-finance officials grew suspicious, just as Wiesenberg did, after looking at the required filings of contributions and expenditures of Great Schools Massachusetts (GSM), one of five registered ballot committees organized to get out the vote for Question 2. In the six months leading up to the vote, GSM received close to $17 million from FESA and Families for Excellent Schools, an unusually large stream of funding from a single donor, according to OCPF.

“A review of bank records showed that FESA’s transfers to the ballot question committee closely followed FESA’s receipts from individuals,” the OCPF said in a press release, on September 11, announcing the legal settlement and fine. “Additionally, the money received by FESA significantly increased during the four months before the Nov. 8 election, and then dropped significantly afterward, further suggesting that FESA solicited or received contributions with the intent to give the money to the ballot question committee.”

Officials concluded that FESA was functioning as a ballot committee in all but name, and was, thus, violating campaign finance law by failing to register with state officials and disclose its donors in advance of the vote. Therefore, in addition to the monetary fine, campaign officials required FESA to reveal its donor lists, which included two officials in the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, as well as several wealthy Massachusetts business people and some of the nation’s leading education reform philanthropists and charter-school funders.

In her November 2016 post, Wiesenberg speculated:  “The  Fisher family’s absence is particularly noteworthy as John Fisher co-chairs the board of the  Charter Growth Fund  and chairs the board of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP Foundation,) the largest charter organization in the nation […] Another KIPP Foundation board member who does not appear on official Question 2 ballot committee filings with OCPF is Mark Nunnelly, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology who reports directly to Governor Charlie Baker, a major supporter of the ballot initiative.”

Peggy Wiesenberg has kept digging; the remainder of this post details what she found via the records disclosed under FESA’s legal settlement.

Last week FESA revealed that Nunnelly donated $275,000 in two installments within two months of the November referendum. Nunnelly’s wife, Denise Dupre, contributed $275,000. This was in addition to relatively minor $10,000 contributions to ballot committees that required public disclosure. John and Doris Fisher made a combined contribution of $500,000 to FESA in July of 2016.

The campaign-finance disposition agreement has revealed other backers of Question 2 who used FESA contributions to hide the full value of their donations in support of the charter-school referendum including:

  • Paul Sagan, Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who contributed $496,000 on August  4 and 5 in addition to his previously disclosed contribution of $100,000 on August 10, 2016.
  • Seth Klarman, Investment Manager of the Baupost Group LLC, contributed $3 million within six months of the election in addition to his previously disclosed contribution of $40,000 in September 2015.
  • Jonathan Jacobson, Managing Director Highfields Capital Management LP, contributed $2 million in August and October. That’s in addition to the previously disclosed contribution of $40,000 in September 2015 by his wife Joanna, Managing Partner of Strategic Grant Partners, another dark money vehicle, according to Professor Maurice Cunningham of UMass Boston. See here and here.
  • Josh Bekenstein, a Bain Capital investor, and his wife Anita, a private philanthropist, each contributed $750,000 in August and $500,000 on October 2016 for a combined total of $1.5 million, in addition to Josh’s previously disclosed contribution of $40,000 in September 2015.
  • Chuck L. Longfield, Founder of Target Analytics and Chief Scientist at Blackbaud, funneled  $650,000 to FESA under the name “Chuck Longfield,” in addition to a previously disclosed contribution of $100,000 under the name “Charles Longfield”  on August 2016 and $1,000 in November 2015. [The OCPF filings have a discrepancy in the house number associated with Longfield’s contributions—in all likelihood a typographical error.] Longfield went on WBUR radio on October 31, 2016 to explain why he gave $100,000 in support of raising the cap on charter schools, never mentioning the exponentially larger  contribution that he made through FESA to lift the cap.
  • Martin Mannion, Managing Director of Summit Partners, contributed $100,000 to FESA between August and October 2016 in addition to a disclosed campaign contribution of $30,000 in October 2016.
  • Alice Walton contributed $750,000 to FESA on November 2016 in addition to her previously disclosed contribution of $710,000 to Yes On 2, another campaign committee, in July.

The Boston Globe reports that in addition to paying the fine, and revealing its donors, the group also “agreed with the IRS to dissolve itself, and Families for Excellent Schools, its umbrella group, and agreed not to fund-raise or engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.”

The FESA revelations have proven a major embarrassment for Gov. Baker who lobbied hard for Question 2. The Boston Globe reports multiple efforts to have the governor remove Sagan from the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. However, two new board members sworn in today–Martin West and Amanda Fernandez–are both charter advocates. Fernandez also sits on the board of KIPP Mass, which has expansion requests before the BESE board.

In addition, among the secret donors to FESA was $2,025,000 from Amos Hostetter, Jr., a former cable entrepreneur who, with his wife, founded the Barr Foundation (the largest family foundation in Massachusetts, one legendary for its secrecy.)  His contribution coincided with an effort to lobby the Baker administration to block the construction of a hotel next to Hostetter’s offices. Hostetter, who also had donated to the 2009 charter referendum, insists his donation to FESA was “entirely coincidental.”

Maybe so. In any event, Baker vetoed the construction project.

The FESA fine could reverberate outside the state. In New York, where Families for Excellent Schools, is based, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who “has made clean campaigns a centerpiece of his agenda,” is being pressured to look into the group’s campaign activities.



Posted in Brockton, MA, Business, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why Vote? Midwifing the Youth Vote in the Age of Trump

Last week, Brad Lander, a New York City councilman from Brooklyn, and founder of the City Council’s progressive caucus, stood before 50-or-so young people and talked about the push to close Rikers Island, the city’s dysfunctional jail; the challenges of persuading the state legislature to vote for bail reform, and how cash bail disproportionately impacts the poor; and a recent victory in helping to pass legislation that provides a lawyer for anyone facing eviction in housing court.

Lander also talked about how the social issues millennials care about have been influenced by activists and ordinary citizens—like the attorney general’s race in Brooklyn, in which the candidates have zeroed in on criminal justice reform.

Before long, Lander was being peppered with questions and comments from his audience of mostly 17- and 18-year-olds who had congregated in a large meeting space at the CUNY Graduate Center and had spent two hours of intensive learning and discussion about the City Council in advance of Lander’s talk:

–Can you bring restorative justice to those in jail?

–How would a bill Lander recently co-sponsored to create an office within the New York City Commission on Human Rights to monitor school segregation work? Wouldn’t it just create another layer of bureaucracy?

–What do you think can be done about political polarization?

–How can you keep people from being kicked out of their homes?

–Gentrification is not all bad; for example, it brings healthy food options to what had been food deserts before. How can we improve poor neighborhoods without gentrifying them?

The young people assembled for Lander’s talk, last Tuesday evening, are part of YVote, a new youth-voter initiative that I helped found with a group of New York City educators, as part of an effort to help midwife democracy at the local level. By examining such issues as affordable housing, immigration and mass incarceration through the lens of “why vote?” we expect these high school student leaders to channel their interests and passions into civically engaged action and to become ambassadors for voting in their schools and communities.

YVote seeks to fill a vital gap in civic- and youth-voter-engagement projects, which often fall short by focusing primarily on registration. Too many students remain disengaged from, or intimidated by, the voting process. As Education Week noted in its recent write-up of YVote:

Seventy percent of registered voters over 70 years old turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election. But of those under 25, only 43 percent went to the polls. “If youth had turned out in larger numbers, the results would likely have been different,” notes Sanda Balaban, who formerly directed Strategic Learning Initiatives for Facing History and Ourselves.

[Balaban is a cofounder of YVote along with Ann Wiener, a founding principal of the Crossroads School and Marilyn Niemark, a professor emeritus at Baruch College.]

YVote is also part of a broad-based national 18 in ‘18 campaign that aims to get newly eligible voters registered and voting in far greater numbers for the midterm elections, for which youth turnout historically is notoriously low—below 20 percent in 2014.

Behind YVote is also the recognition that a lack of civic knowledge and interest is an unintended consequence of the education-reform and accountability movements, which have created a boom in educational testing at the expense of non-tested subjects, especially history and civics. (See my upcoming book After the Education Wars, which will be published by the New Press in spring ’18.) In 2010 New York State board of regents eliminated the testing of social studies in grades 5 and 8 as a “cost reduction” measure, while adding numerous new standardized tests including two—the so called MOSL and the base-line MOSL–that were designed for the sole purpose of evaluating teachers.

As of 2012, only 21 states required a civics exam, a “dramatic reduction” from the 34 states that conducted regular assessments on social studies subjects in 2001. “We know from report after report that social studies is not being tested and is therefore not being taught,” says Peggy Altoff, a social studies consultant for Colorado and a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “States may have strong standards, but without strong legislation to back the teaching of it, I don’t think it’s happening.”

Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, has deemed social studies and civics to be expendable. In 2014, the NAEP governing board dropped fourth- and twelfth-grade civics and American history, beginning in 2014, even while it added a new computer-based Technology and Engineering Literacy test in 2015.

YVote aims to give young people the tools, the context and some of the knowledge they need to become informed citizens and grassroots change agents. YVote launched this summer with a seed grant, which enabled us to develop a series of youth focus groups and training sessions. Our first YVote cohort is double the 25-to-30 students we expected. They are economically, racially and politically diverse juniors and seniors from 20 New York City high schools and all five boroughs.

In advance of Councilman Landers visit, our team of experienced facilitators—some are teachers at some of New York’s best public schools, others are youth activists—introduced YVoters to the role of the City Council, as well as articles, representing multiple perspectives, about key issues facing New York City and its government: school segregation, criminal justice reform and gentrification. These materials, as well as conversations among the students, prompted the YVoters questions and a lively hour-long back-and-forth with Lander.

In the spirit of YVote, Lander concluded his remarks with the inspiring story of Wes Bellamy, at 30, the youngest person ever elected to the Charlottesville City Council, who sparked what once seemed like a quixotic effort to remove the statue of the Robert E. Lee. Bellamy, the only African-American member of the City Council was, at first, alone in the effort. He gradually succeeded in persuading two of his five colleagues to vote with him.

“When someone gets a little courage, others get courage,” explained Lander. “And then a little more courage.”

The YVoters have plenty of courage.  During the coming school year, we expect to help channel that courage—and fire—and to facilitate their efforts to learn, to launch projects of civic importance, and to mobilize their peers to vote.

Here is more information on YVote

If you have questions, please contact Y2Vote@gmail.com and please be sure to put “Gabor’s YVote blog post” in the subject field.

Posted in citizenship, democracy, Education, public schools, Trump | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Are New Orleans’ Veteran Teachers Unappreciated?


Veteran New Orleans teachers say there is much that has improved in the city’s schools since Hurricane Katrina, including academics and strong school cultures. One thing that has decidedly not improved is job satisfaction among the city’s most experienced teachers, according to a new study by the Educational Research Alliance at Tulane University.

ERA’s analysis provides an important before-and-after-the-storm glimpse of the city’s schools from a unique perspective—the small group of pre-Katrina teachers who returned to teaching following the storm, and who have remained in the classroom for over a decade. As New Orleans looks forward, the views of these returning pre-Katrina teachers are key; they are the survivors.

In the wake of the mass firings following the storm, the teachers who returned to New Orleans and were still teaching at the time of the study, in the 2013/2014 school year, almost surely represent the city’s most experienced educators—and those with the closest community ties. While teachers with greater than 20 years of experience made up nearly 40 percent of the teaching force before the storm, that number has dropped to about 15 percent, according to another ERA study. Conversely, the number of inexperienced teachers with less than 5 years experience now make up the majority of teachers, up from about 30 percent before the storm.

As of the 2013/2014 school year, 771 teachers had returned to teaching jobs in the city, or just under 24 percent of the city’s total 3,219 teachers. Of these 42 percent participated in the ERA survey.

The study shows some striking differences in how these veteran teachers view the schools before and after the storm. Among the biggest differences are these:

–61 percent of teachers said that their job satisfaction was less now” than before Hurricane Katrina, compared with 39 percent who said it was greater after the storm.

–54 percent said they spent longer hours working now, compared with 10 percent who said they spent “less” time working. (The remainder said there was no change.)

–38 percent found students’ home environments are “more” challenging now, compared with 17 percent who said home environments were “less” challenging. (The remainder said there was no change.)

ERA also notes some “positive” results:

–a significant majority of teachers said schools were “more” likely to use data and to fire poorly performing teachers.

–a majority—40 percent and 36 percent, respectively–cited “more” strong school culture and support for teachers, compared to 19 percent and 21 percent who said school culture and support for teachers had declined since the reforms. (The remainder said there was no change.)

Yet, it is the decreased teacher morale among these veterans that is most worrisome. Earlier studies show that teacher turnover has soared in New Orleans–at least partly the result of novice teachers who have come to New Orleans since the storm, but quit after just a few years. Teachers who left the profession went from about 8 percent in 2003 to about 18 percent in 2013.

Also, while student outcomes are positively correlated with having teachers from comparable racial and ethnic backgrounds, a combination of Louisiana policies and charter-school reforms have led to a “dramatic shift in the teacher workforce,” according to the Hechinger Report. The number of African-American teachers in New Orleans dropped precipitously following Hurricane Katrina from 71 percent of the teaching force to 49 percent for a student body that is now 87-percent African-American.  (See also, Andre Perry on the importance of black teachers)

Behind the numbers is a sharp drop in the pipeline for local teachers, the result of both state cuts to higher education that have gutted local education programs and charter-school preference for hiring teachers from alternative education programs, such as TFA.

The new ERA study also adds to a growing body of research that points in two contradictory directions: On the one hand, studies show low-experience levels, high turnover and weak teacher morale in New Orleans. On the other hand, some researchers have pointed to a positive correlation between the reforms, including charter schools, competition and a sharper focus on accountability, and increased test scores. “How is it possible to see large improvement in student outcomes when all the typical measures of teacher quality seem to be going in the wrong direction?” ERA asked in an earlier study.

One answer is that some New Orleans research is unreliable and some is over-hyped. The much touted CREDO study of 2015 violated its own methodology in its research on New Orleans. Meanwhile, ERA’s 2015 study, “What Effect Did the Post-Katrina School Reforms Have on Student Outcomes?”, found that the reforms had resulted in increased  test scores in grades 3 to 8; however the study said virtually nothing about test scores in high school. Doug Harris, director of ERA wrote in a recent email: “We don’t have high school test results, in part because the testing regime changed multiple times in multiple ways, which makes the analysis much more complex. We haven’t tried the analysis with the high school scores because we haven’t found a way we found believable.”

That hasn’t stopped education reformers from pouncing on the somewhat limited results of the ERA study and declaring victory.

Indeed, important characteristics of New Orleans reforms, including a high-rate of school closings and at-risk students cycling through multiple schools, are more likely to adversely impact high school students who, unlike their younger peers, are more likely to resist no-excuses culture of the non-selective New Orleans charters, and eventually to drop out. New Orleans also has done a terrible job of keeping track of kids who “fall between the cracks.”

Education reformers like to say that “teachers are the single most important” school variable in a child’s education. As with so much else in the ed-reform debates, this is misleading. For surely, school stability and culture, which is controlled by school leaders—in the best cases, by cadres of teacher leaders—is as important as the role of individual teachers. School culture also helps determine just how much influence teachers have over curriculum, discipline and other policies. In my research, both quality education and teacher job satisfaction are highly correlated with schools that include teachers in such key decisions.

In New Orleans, with a teacher cadre plagued by high turnover and sparse classroom experience, veteran teachers should be treasured. That so many say they have less job satisfaction than during the pre-Katrina years, suggests that they are not, which is surely a failing with implications far beyond just teacher morale.

Posted in Charter Schools, CREDO, Education, New Orleans Charter Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments