Is it “all about the kids” (and what that might mean)? — Take One (in relation to ULGM and Madison Prep)

Sir Mack Rice “Money Talks” (click to listen or download)

My training as a historian has taught me that all knowledge is tentative and that this is especially true when it comes to assigning motives to people’s actions.  It has also taught me to not accept self-proclaimed motives at face value , to only state an opinion  about the motives of others when there is a preponderance of evidence,  and to look  at actions and consequences as well as  rhetoric when trying to make sense of things.

With those caveats,  I think it is worthwhile to investigate the motives, actions and the consequences of the actions of Kaleem Caire and some of others associated with the Madison Prep proposal and the Urban League of Greater Madison in relation to public education.

Enemies of teachers and teacher unions have seized upon the phrase “it is all about the kids” to ridicule and attack teachers and their representatives.   With union and (almost all) others, of course it isn’t “all about the kids.”  Interestingly, those who blame unions for some or all of the ills of public education — like many of  the proponents  of Madison Prep — often offer their own versions of “it is all about the kids.”  Examples include  Michelle Rhee who named her group Students First (Valarie Strauss pointedly offered a column on Rhee’s organization titled “Rhee’s campaign is not about the kids.”) and the anti-Union political bribery has been done  in Illinois (and elsewhere) under the banner of Stand for Children ( a must-see video here).

This is the first of a series of three “takes,” distinct but related investigations of what else besides concern for “the kids” might be fueling the Madison Prep effort and some thoughts about how a sincere effort largely or even exclusively on behalf of “the kids” can lead to consequences (intended or unintended or both) that many of us see as very harmful to “the kids.”

Take One:  Why did the Walton Family Foundation spend  $157 million last year on “education reform” (and almost as much in previous years) and how this relates to Madison Prep?

The Washington Post reported that in 2010 The Walton Family Foundation gave grants totaling over $157 million to what they deemed “education” reform efforts.  The entire list is here, and you can see the previous years here.  Under “Shaping Public Policy,” you can find such groups as the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research; the National Right to Work Legal Defense & Education Foundation;  Wisconsin’s own Right Wing Press Release machine the John K. Maclver Institute for Public Policy, Inc.; and Kaleem Caire’s former employers the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

The Walton Foundation describes its educational policy work and goals in this manner:

For parents to be empowered to choose among high-performing schools, local and state public policy must allow for those choices to exist. To this end, we seek to build the capacity of organizations to help enact, strengthen and protect programs that empower parents to choose high-performing schools.

Investment Strategies

Within our Shape Public Policy initiative, we focus on advocacy groups promoting:

  • Public charter school choice;
  • Private school choice;
  • District reforms, particularly open enrollment and district school choice; and
  • Cross-sector parental choice, parents are empowered to choose across school.

Note that the ability “to choose” is the goal, not universal access.   I want to return to this in the context of their relationship to Kaleem Caire  and Madison Prep, but first I want to say that there is a preponderance of evidence that the Waltons’ motives have very little to do “high powered schools” or education (especially the kind of education that makes people ask questions about the doings of people like the Waltons) and everything to do with destroying the public sector.  The same can be said to a great degree about many of the other supporters of Caire’s work, with some overtly racist and segregationist dimensions for at least the Bradley Foundation, who funded The Bell Curve and the Kochs who have been active in the re-segregation of Wake County NC schools (watch this powerful video, appropriately titled ” Why do the Koch brothers want to end public education? “).

As I was working on this Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism released the first of his three part series on the Walton’s and other choice advocates’ activities in Wisconsin,  This saves me a lot of trouble preponding the evidence.  In part one you can read about the  tens of thousands of dollars in direct contributions to candidates, the uncounted indirect contributions via front groups,  the ties among individuals like the Waltons and Betsy and Dick DeVos and organizations such as the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice.    Not mentioned in part one of the Lueders piece is the relationships to American Legislative Exchange Council, another beneficiary of the Walton largesses and one that gets us closer to their public sector destroying mission.  You can also get a glimpse at some of the Walton’s federal activities via Open Secrets, here.

David Sirota’s “The bait and switch of school ‘reform“” brings it back to covers more of this, including the direct profit motive and the alliance of conservative and “neo-liberal” actors.  “Following the Charter Dollars” by Don Whittinghill of the Louisiana School Boards Association is also a must read (for those who want more on Louisiana, “NOLA Public Schools & School Privatization Part 1: Selected Bibliography of Articles, Books, Studies and Informed Opinions–2011 to 10/2010” is a good place to start; for the conservative movement ad the role of “think tanks” in general, this bibliography from the Commonweal Institute \\is very useful..

All these add to evidence that with the schools as well as in the workplace and for working parents, in the electoral arena,  in tax policy, on the environment and with so much more, The Waltons and there free market friends have interests that are very different than the well being of America’s children and very much geared toward weakening, undermining and destroying the good of the public sector.

Still, in a strange way if you believe that the entire American experiment in universal common schooling has been an irredeemable failure, public sector destroying may circle back to the quest for quality education .

I don’t believe that.  I’ve put in countless volunteer hours working for change and improvement in public education, but I’m more of a believer in the “Conservationist Ethic in Education”  and although it is often frustrating, Tinkering Toward Utopia has more appeal to me in public education than creative destruction, especially when the worth of what is being created in the wreckage is questionable at best.

For now though, let’s leave speculation about motives aside, take  them at their word  and assume that this is all or nearly all about the kids  and look at how that has worked out.  In essence that’s what Kaleem Caire has done and what he he is now asking the Board of Education and the taxpayers of Madison to do;  to follow the path prescribed by the Waltons and their ilk and see how it works out for the kids.

For the last decade  Kaleem Caire’s work has been funded by people like the Waltons and the Bradley Foundation, the (Milton) Friedman  Foundation and even the Koch Brothers.   It wasn’t always that way.  When he ran for the Board of Education in 1998 (the first Madison School Board campaign I was part of), the Capital Times reported

If elected, Caire says he will lead the fight against the ”very elitist conservatives who are trying to basically break the back of public education.”

Then he began working with or for these people.  Now he dismisses any objections to these alliances, as in the recent Wisconsin State Journal story:

“On the issue of vouchers, we agreed,” he said of his conservative benefactors. “On other things, we didn’t. I don’t listen to the guilt-by-association crap.”

He pointed out that other funders included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, considered more left-leaning politically.

First and as an aside, very, very few people in ed policy consider the recent work done by the Gates Foundation (or to a lesser extent the Joyce Foundation) to be “left-leaning.”  They are more right-center  in a landscape that has been shifting steadily to the right.

Second, I don’t think “guilt-by-association” is “crap.”

I understand building coalitions and working with people you might otherwise disagree with toward a common goal, but you do have to choose your comrades and I think there should be some limits on who you are willing to associate with.  Maybe that’s just me.

One reason for limits is that there is a danger of being used, of having the distinct agenda of one party to the deal advanced to a much greater degree than your common goals.   It has become common for conservatives and corporate America to use Civil Rights organizations and minorities to help advance their agendas.  It is no accident that Linda Chavez is the face of the (also Bradley Foundation backed) Center for Equal Opportunity, and their attack on affirmative action and bilingual education at UW and elsewhere.  Just this week there was a story about the Congress on Racial Equality opposing Green Jobs at the behest of their funder ExxonSupporters of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger include the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, (yes, unions are not immune) the National Education AssociationThe national Urban League supports too.  All of these organizations have benefited from generous donations from the telecom behemoth.

I remember Caire’s mentor Howard Fuller saying “we use them, they use us,” but this seems to set the two parties up as equals in the exchange and we all know that one side has millions or billions of dollars at their disposal, while the other brings to the table little more than their energy and ability to complicate the racial politics.

So to see if the deal has been a good one, we have to return to “the kids.”  The Walton’s posit expanded choice as an end of itself;  Kaleem Caire has presented choice as a means to an end, the end being access to quality education and improved educational outcomes.  There is no question that the Waltons have been successful in expanding choice (and I’d add they have made significant progress in their less transparent goal of destroying public education).   Most of the evidence points to the conclusion that the aggregate impact of expanded choice on access to quality education has been negative.

It needs to be acknowledged that many individual children have benefited from expanded choice via vouchers and charters, but when the “greatest good for the greatest number” metric is employed, “choice” is found wanting, as is the Madison Prep proposal.

The latest study of the Milwaukee voucher program y by the Walton-funded University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project concluded that in terms of academic achievement of students enrolled in private schools at taxpayer expense do on average no better than similar students  enrolled in MPS schools.   The mandated report from the Legislative Audit Bureau echoed this finding.  Less sophisticated readings of Department of Public Instruction data reveals that voucher students did worse on the WKCE than MPS students; this is true even if the comparison is confined to those eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Voucher proponents interested in student outcomes (no just choice for choice sake) have been reduced to pointing to superior graduation rates (a very questionable measure given the autonomy private schools have in this area) and making a convoluted case that the competition from vouchers has improved public schools.  The latter is both the first and last refuge of the free market reformers.  Their prime directive is that the competition of the market always produces progress.  It is also in the words of sometime Caire collaborator Jay P. Green of the Arkansas Project a win/win assertion for them.  Had the voucher schools performed better this would be evidence of success, but since they did not, the failure of privatization is redeemed by the success in the public sector, success that is said to depend o the presence of the failed private sector.   That’s the political/ideological analysis; more scholarly critiques, rejoinders  and dissents from the conclusions of the Arkansas Project and related “research”  check  the publications of the always worthwhile  National Education Policy Center Think Tank Review Project (and here), as well as Vouchers and Public School Performance: A Case Study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program  from the Economic Policy Institute.

The gold standard research on charter school choice is  the 2009 “Multiple choice: Charter performance in 16 states” publication from the The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford.   Here is their summary of the findings.

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

17% better, 46% about the same and 37% “significantly worse.”  Choice does not appear to have worked out very well for those who choose charter schools.

I’m not sure there is a rigorous way to assess the impact of “choice”  (charter and voucher), on the public schools.  Too much variation by state and local, too many variables all over and there are some things that I think are important that are difficult or impossible to quantify.  I do want to point to two things that should be part of the equation: money and the ill-defined nexus of support, energy, faith….

In terms of public money, things vary greatly by state, local and to some degree with each individual school.  We can safely say that in recent years federal policies have used federal funding to encourage and support charter schools and that this funding comes from an inadequate pool of total federal education dollars.   At the state level, funding mechanisms and comparative funding for public, charter and voucher-type schools vary widely and one must also consider who attends and the relative costs of educating different students (this is especially important with high needs special education students, who rarely enroll in choice schools).   In some locales and with vouchers in general the public “choice”  outlay per student is lower than the public school outlay; in others it is about the same or higher.  “Choice” proponents see the lower outlays as evidence of savings; opponents point to the how the loss of small number of students from any given school or grade rarely creates opportunities for savings via staff, facilities or program reductions (if you want to offer a class in Mandarin,  the cost will be about the same whether 15 or 25 students are enrolled) and see any diversion of funds as a problem.  I lean very much in the direction of the opponents.   One thing that is very clear is that a whole lot  of private money which could be invested in public schools is going to sell and support school choice.

In the case of Madison Prep, the money piece is clear and bad.  Ed Hughes has all the gory details based on the latest information (as far as I can tell — and I have asked — there is no final proposal or budget, but this link goes to a very basic budget document that came with the announcement of the second proposed school for young women).  The cost per pupil is about $15,000 in comparison to MMSD’s marginal cost per pupil of a little over $10,000 the payments to Madison Prep over five years would total over $27,000,000 and according to Ed Hughes’ calculations funding Madison Prep for hundreds of students will require annual cuts to the programs and services that serve the 24,000 students (12,000 in poverty) in MMSD.  Hughes works out the numbers in detail for “year four” and comes up with a $1.5 million estimate for that year’s Madison Prep related cut to the district budget.

Keep in mind that like all charter schools in Wisconsin, Madison Prep cannot selectively enroll based on race, poverty or academic success, so we really have no idea who these extra resources may go too.    In contrast, the district — if they have the resources — can and does target programs and services and allocations  based on a variety of factors.  I’ve advocated for the district to do this more extensively, more systematically and better.  Approving Madison Prep will further strain targeted programing and make equity based allocations harder and less likely.  Any way you look at the finances, the proposal almost certainly fails the greatest good for the greatest number test.  If it is about the kids, it is only about some of the kids, because most of the kids will see decreased investments in their futures.

I think the intangible aspects of “choice’s” and “choice” advocacy’s impact on public schools, what I called “support, energy, faith….” may be more important than the money.   I written before about the damage done by the self-fulfilling prophesy of looking to charter schools for innovation and creativity.  The big picture harm done by undermining support for public schools is touched on above (and indirectly in this post).   These are important, but I want to focus on something more immediate, the relationships between families and their schools.

An inevitable and often deliberate tactic of choice advocates is to play to and build on feelings of alienation and distrust families feel toward their schools.  The implicit and sometimes explicit messages are “you can trust us, you can’t trust them; we care, they don’t care; we know how to help your child; they don’t know how to help your child.”  A little distrust is healthy and probably justified, as is some skepticism about educational prowess.

However, when this goes too far (as it frequently does)  it strains and may break the family/school ties  of collaboration that are essential to success.   Even if  Madison Prep is approved many, many more struggling students will remain in district schools and these students need the combined and cooperative efforts of their families and the the schools.  If it is about the kids, this has to be taken into consideration.  Unfortunately, I fear that both in Madison and nationally much damage has already been done.

Pulling back a little (and circling back to innovation and creativity),  this cultivation of distrust also, further discourages dissatisfied parents and community members from getting involved in school and district issues, from demanding a seat at the table to fight for their vision of educational improvement.    In terms of helping the kids, there is much good that could be accomplished by having more diverse and dissatisfied  people working for district-wide improvement.

If there are a big take-aways or conclusions from all of this  they are 1. If access to quality educational opportunities and improved educational outcomes are the goal, if defined in this way “choice” advocacy is “all about the kids,” then it has not been a success; 2. “Choice” advocacy has been successful in damaging support for public schools; and 3.  Following the “choice” path laid out be the supporters of Madison Prep may help some, but would have a net negative impact on “the kids” of the district, who this is supposed to be all about.

I’m going to stop there (unless I go back and edit).  Kind of long for “take one.’  “Take two” will be much shorter, I promise (it is)

Note: A Public Hearing on the Madison Prep proposal has been scheduled for Monday October 3, at 6:00 PM in the Doyle Building Auditorium;

Thomas J. Mertz.

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1 Comment

Filed under "education finance", Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Budget, Contracts, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, Take Action, Uncategorized

One response to “Is it “all about the kids” (and what that might mean)? — Take One (in relation to ULGM and Madison Prep)

  1. Jeffrey Henriques

    TJ – Thank you for doing all of this research. This is a tremendous amount of work that you have done, and it is very helpful. I hope a lot of people read your research.

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