Author Archives: Robert Godfrey

Meet The Billionaires Who Are Trying To Privatize Our Schools And Kill Public Education

For most of you reading this, dear advocates of public education, none of this that I am about to mention will be very new information for you. But given Sam Dillon’s report on the front page of the New York Times today, I think perhaps momentum is building in reexamining the emerging role of the wealthy in this country in re-writing the assumptions of what public education is, and should be in the future. This post was also prompted by an excellent piece by our own Ruth Conniff, writing in the Isthmus this week.

Dillon has performed a yeoman’s task of putting together, in a short article, the convoluted inter-workings of the Bill Gates education philanthropy’s strategy for overhauling the nation’s education policies. In some cases the Gates Foundation is immediately engaged in financing educators to offering direct challenges to teacher unions on such issues as the seniority system and and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. In other cases, Mr. Gates has actually created entirely new advocacy groups, while at the same time financially supporting many Washington education analysts with contacts with journalists, even giving grants to some media organizations.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

“It’s easier to name which groups Gates doesn’t support than to list all of those they do, because it’s just so overwhelming,” noted Ken Libby, a graduate student who has pored over the foundation’s tax filings as part of his academic work.

The impact of the foundation’s role in education policy is immense. Dillon reported that it had developed and promoted common core academic standards that have been adopted in 45 states in recent months.

While the foundation has nominally supported the AFT and the NEA, it was also a supporter of a campaign focused on the “Waiting for Superman” film, a piece of agit-prop that was quite critical of the AFT head, Randi Weingarten. Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, are focussed on giving non-union voices to newer teachers.

In Wisconsin, as Ruth Conniff has so eloquently stated:

There is something horribly fascinating about watching Wisconsin Republicans discuss their plans for our state’s school system.

First, they swing the bloody ax:

  • The biggest budget cuts to our public schools in state history, nearly $900 million. Kerchunk.
  • A bill to create a statewide system of charter schools whose authorizing board is appointed by Scott Walker and the Fitzgeralds, and which will funnel resources out of local schools and into cheapo online academies. Kerchunk.
  • Lifting income caps on private-school vouchers so taxpayers foot the bill to send middle- and upper-income families’ kids to private school. Kerchunk.

and then goes on to document the slow drip-drip of multiple camel noses under the tent, as local authority is usurped and for-profit charters and vouchers begin to gather size and influence within the system from a slow trot to a gallop, balkanizing and dismembering public education as we currently know it.

Despite the public outcry and some nervous chatter from the sidelines from some Republicans, as Conniff as so astutely pointed out,

… this is a sideshow. As Wisconsinites are becoming increasingly aware, the real money in state politics is streaming in from a nationally financed campaign to destroy public schools and privatize education. Olsen’s second-biggest individual contributor, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign data, is Richard Sharp of the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for School Choice.

The American Federation for Children, which hosted Walker in Washington, D.C., is a spin-off of the Michigan-based group All Children Matter, which has poured millions into phony issue ads in state legislative races and been the defendant in multiple campaign-finance lawsuits, including one here in Wisconsin.

Both groups were founded by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, who brought Walker out to be a star speaker in Washington.

While he was there, Walker gave a shout-out to disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who now works for the American Federation for Children, along with Brian Pleva, who used to run the powerful Republican Assembly Campaign Committee here in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, James Bender, former chief of staff for now-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, is now a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.

In fact, school choice groups are poised to become the single most powerful lobby group in the state, edging out bankers and realtors; who would thought such a thing was possible just a few short years ago?

As a new report by Think Progress’ Zaid Jilani has pointed out, Wisconsin is, of course, not alone in being inundated with billionaire’s money to undermine, undercut and to privatize public education.

For over 45 years vouchers were up for a vote in states 25 times, and were rejected by voters 24 of those times. As I noted a couple of years ago on AMPS, these same set of billionaires that Jilani cited (he noted that the American Federation for Children alone spent $820,000 in Wisconsin during the last election) have the money and the organizational power to reach their ultimate goal, unless we begin to stop them in their tracks.

Jilani noted that:

While the goals of the figures in this movement are varied, their assault on our public education system is one and the same. Joseph Bast, the president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, explained his own thinking about vouchers once, saying, “The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization.” It’s up to Americans to protect their schools, teachers, kids, and communities from that fate.

Robert Godfrey

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Dane County Parent Organizing Meeting set for this Sunday

Parents in Dane County have scheduled an event to update the public on Governor Scott Walkers’ devastating cuts to their children’s educational opportunities and to plan what they can do, together, to form advocacy groups and work for a better way. The event follows closely on the heels of a similar meeting in Greenfield, March 5, that saw over 400 people come together to plan the next step.

March 27, members of the Dane County School Board Consortium and WAES will host a community meeting — “The Future of Public Education and A Call to Action” — at the Monona Grove High School Commons, 4400 Monona Drive, Monona. The hoped-for outcomes of the event, which runs from 3 to 4:40 p.m., include an increased understanding of school funding in Wisconsin, alternatives to cuts in funding, and formation of community advocacy groups. For more information, call 608-217-5938 or go to here.

Robert Godfrey

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The problems with merit pay and testing

Value added measures used for merit pay and teacher pay, sounds fair, but the reality can be quite different. In this video by Prof. Daniel Willingham, he describes six problems (some conceptual, some statistical) with evaluating teachers by comparing student achievement in the fall and in the spring.

Robert Godfrey

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Coming Transformations

Credit: Computer Vision Laboratory, Columbia University

I want start off with one of the most egregious aspects of a horribly underfunded public school system and what acts of desperations that can ensue, followed by some “respectable” examples of education reform percolating around the country and ending with the next big “shining object” that will command our full attention here in Wisconsin shortly, whether we like it or not.

We begin with Charlotte Hill’s recent reporting at the change.org site that highlighted a distressing development; four inner-city schools in Detroit are “partnering” with Walmart

to offer a course in job-readiness. Student participants earn school credit while learning how to hold down one of the superstore’s infamously low-paying positions. When the bell rings at 3:30, off the students go to their new entry-level jobs, where they work for minimal pay.

Their public school system, like the majority in the country, are struggling. They need money. Enter Walmart, licking their chops to come in and fill the breach. And in their world, students will be conditioned to accept a work environment that is “notorious for its low wages, discriminatory [in its] treatment of female employees, mass lay-offs and refusal to acknowledge, much less support, employee unions,” says Hill. 29 schools were closed this past fall, with 40 more due to be shuttered in the coming year – “financial need — not educational integrity — is driving the decision.”

At the end of the day, Walmart is the true winner in this partnership. Hill reported that

According to the Department of Labor, “Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer.” From my calculations, 11 weeks of training amounts to just under 90 days of employment. Looks like whichever Walmart executive made the decision to partner with Detroit schools was just living by the corporation’s own slogan: “Save money. Live better.”

As Alex DiBranco pointed out:

The real message goes more like: Your educational system has failed you. Because of mass class inequities, you will not be offered opportunities to succeed in life. In fact, we’ve so given up on you, that even though you still come to school, we’re going to turn school into training on how to hold down the worst job possible and suffer all sorts of labor abuses. Just in case you’ve made it to your teenage years without realizing this, know the world doesn’t care about you, and you might as well give up on your dreams now.

Proposals for enormous changes in the school system have always been a feature during times of economic crisis, but you have to stop and catch your breath at times when some of the more “throw the baby out with the bathwater” schemes get a serious airing from our self-appointed “out of the box” thinkers on education “reform,” or, as one of our local school board candidates would prefer, “transformation.” Take for example Utah state senator, Chris Buttars. He has introduced a bill that would eliminate 12th grade in all public schools in his state, saving, according to Buttars, $60 million dollars from a state shortfall of $700 million. You might say to yourself that such a large hatchet would appear to have a fairly minimal impact on such a large deficit, and would therefore be dismissed out of hand, but you would be wrong. Eight other states are contemplating similar moves. It also wouldn’t probably surprise you to learn that the Gates Foundation is providing the initial planning grant to get this initiative off the ground. And while the impetus for having a so-called board exam system in which students must achieve some core competencies, instead of seat time in a classroom, has some laudatory elements to it, the larger gorilla in the room is that it will take an enormous amount of one-time stimulus money just to get this initiative off the ground in these handful of states.

A question I continue to ask is: why, in all these reports on new initiatives for “reform” (or if you like “transformation”), is it rarely mentioned or raised as a concern, the issue of how these initiatives will be paid for in a long term, sustained way?

Getting back to the actual students who are at the center of this maelstrom of education innovation, as Jessica Shiller has noted:

Seems like the students that would benefit most from having public school for longer would get left out in the cold. Graduating in 11th grade and having to look for a job in a dismal market is not much of an option. Going to community college or a vocational program could offer more, but with graduation rates pretty low, around 25% — to the point that the Gates Foundation is getting involved to help community colleges do better by their students — this also doesn’t seem like a suitable substitute for a full high school education.

Students who don’t do well early in high school might be left with dead-end options. At least if those students have a couple more years, they can try and improve their grades for college, but under these grade elimination plans, there is no room for that. Young people will be sorted into vocational and college-bound tracks at age 15. No more messing around kids: decisions about your futures will be made very early on in life. So much for the late bloomer.

It is rumored that shortly the beautiful minds behind the Wisconsin Way initiative, will finally roll out their plan, one that will have been already largely crafted in the minds of its corporate interests from the get go when they first held their state-wide forums a couple of years ago. It is likely that the fait accompli plan will contain much that is good, some that seems “sensible,” inducing the pundits to skim past the troubling parts in their embrace of “transformations.” For an excellent primer on the Wisconsin Way, please reread the warning signs that Thomas Mertz was writing about already 2 1/2 years ago.  Also, look for his excellent coverage of this roll out/fall out to come.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t take great creative thinking to know that the oxygen will be largely sucked out of all the hard work of analyses and stakeholder development that WAES has been engaged in for over a decade and its more recent Pennies for Kids initiative. Perhaps, when the chips are comfortably resting on the ground for a while, some parts or aspects of actual education finance/tax reform will get a hearing. But as we’ve seen in the past, nothing gets done in an election year. Sadly, the struggle for real finance reform, will continue for a long time to come.

Robert Godfrey

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Candidate Forum

The East Attendance Area PTO Coalition, an umbrella group of parent-staff organizations in the East High School attendance area, has invited the four candidates for Madison School Board to its March meeting for a Question and Answer session. The meeting/Q & A will take place tomorrow, March 2nd at the Lakeview branch of the public library, 2845 N.Sherman Ave., in the large meeting room in the rear of the library, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. If you missed the candidate forum last Sunday at Wright Middle School, this is an opportunity to hear what the candidates have to say before the election on Tuesday, April 6th.

Robert Godfrey

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The Move to Digital

A couple of days ago, Governor Jim Doyle announced a grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to improve the state’s telecommunications network. The goal of the award is to bring fiber optic broadband to 380 Wisconsin communities.  The $28.7 million BadgerNet project will expand infrastructure for rural schools and libraries, via phone lines, throughout the State.

Access to the Internet in the U.S. is about as common as having cable TV. Unfortunately, it’s still a luxury many families cannot afford.  The ongoing cuts in work hours and benefits, or loss of a job altogether, is of course tragic. For many of us, access to technology is something we tend to take for granted. In our increasingly technology-dependent age, access to a computer and the Internet is becoming quite essential. But many of our low-income families cannot afford a computer or Internet access in their home. Many low-income families are fighting hard just to maintain basic living standards.  With education becoming more dependent on the Internet, it’s even more critical that we level the playing field for all students and families.

But, as Mike Ivey of the Cap Times pointed out in his story this week, the reality is that Madison’s poverty rate is climbing — rising nine times faster than the rate of other U.S. cities, according to a new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, cited by Ivey. Since 2000, the poverty rate (defined as a family of four with an income under $21,800) in Madison has jumped from 15 percent to 17.7 percent. That’s one in every six residents. One of every two students in the Madison Metropolitan School District is now considered “low income” using the free and reduced lunch standard. In 1990, just one in five Madison school kids qualified.  According to the American Community Survey, an annual estimate from the Census Bureau, Madison added nearly 8,400 residents living below the poverty line between 2000 and 2008, a 29 percent increase.  Ivey cited the report’s prediction that “Madison will likely see its poverty rate jump another 1.1 percent this year, surpassing the average poverty rate for the 95 largest U.S. cities.”

In addition to BadgerNet, our school district is also trying to improve the various schools’ access to the internet and to better define its uses as a communication tool.  This access needs to be extended to the families of the students it services.  Jeff Richgels at the Cap Times reported yesterday that due to cost and a lack of digital literacy, over a third of the country does not have high-speed Internet access in the home (defined as non dial-up service).  Broadcasting & Cable reported on an FCC consumer survey that found that “more than a third of the non-adopters (28 million adults) said they don’t have broadband because the price of service is too high (15%); they can’t afford a computer; installation costs are too high (10%); or they don’t want a long-term service contract (9%). According to the survey, the average monthly broadband bill is $41.”

A recent story done by WKOW pointed to the conundrum, “a hard copy of the monthly school news letter is becoming less common these days. That’s one reason why Madison School leaders say they need to change with the times, and find new ways to communicate with parents and community members.”

MMSD posts plenty of information online in the form of press releases, a monthly newsletter, and a video of school-related interest.  They also have Infinite Campus so that parents can keep in touch with what is going on with their child.  Infinite Campus is a district-wide student information system designed to manage attendance, grades, schedules, test scores, and other information about the students in the MMSD.  The Parent Portal is a confidential and secure Web site where you can get current information about your child’s school attendance and grades.   E-mail hyperlinks facilitate communication with classroom teachers. In addition, schools post important information on the home page, such as events, notices, etc,. Attendance information is also available. The Parent Portal allows report cards to be viewed online and printed.

My concern is that in our move to a more online world, we are ignoring a large amount of low income and minority families that do not have an email address.  One example of this came to mind recently. Every year, MMSD asks parents to voice their opinions about the “climate” or feeling at their children’s schools.  They use the survey results to assist with the school improvement planning process.  This survey is available on the MMSD website although, it seems it was never sent out as a press release or included in the MMSD newsletter. The School Climate Survey was sent to the parent’s email address list as generated by each individual school. Surprisingly, this list is apparently not very comprehensive; two of our PTO officers were not on the list, despite having filled out the forms at registration and regularly receive emails from school personnel.

I hope that computers and the internet become as inexpensive as televisions and basic cable service.  Until they are affordable, MMSD cannot rely on the Public Library to be the way for low income families or minority families to access the internet and communicate with their children’s school district.

Jackie Woodruff

(Editor’s Note: We apologize for not crediting Mike Ivey’s fantastic reporting in this post in an earlier iteration posted yesterday)

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The Fix Is In

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has been doing an admirable job of outlining the human costs of our neglected infrastructure in his weekly columns. On Saturday he highlighted the conditions in schools throughout the country. And while he noted that getting the nation’s schools up to date is a huge undertaking, it represents only a small part of the overall infrastructure challenge we face as a nation. While highlighting a school in Pennsylvania built in 1861, with asbestos encrusted walls and dodgy electrical wiring, he noted the difficulty in getting good data on the physical condition of the country’s schools.

Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, has said that 75 percent of the public schools have structural deficiencies and 25 percent have problems with their ventilation systems.

But how to pay for this? Herbert made the point that:

right now there are not enough people at the higher echelons of government trying to figure out the best ways to raise the enormous amounts of money that will be required, and the most responsible ways of spending that money. And there are not enough leaders explaining to the public how heavy this lift will be, and why it is so necessary, and what sacrifices will be required to get the job properly done.

Suggestions have included such institutions as a national infrastructure or regional infrastructure banks that “would allocate public funds and also leverage private capital for the most important projects.” His larger point was that top governmental leaders should be seeking all kinds of solutions that are both solid and creative, while quickly implementing the best of them.

Which brings us to this next item, one with twist and turns not completely understandable at this point, but certainly not held up by people like myself as a model of how to “get the job properly done” — to use Herbert’s words.

Diane Ravitch, an intellectual on education policy, difficult to pigeonhole politically (appointed to public office by both G.H.W. Bush and Clinton), but best described as an independent, co-writes a blog with Deborah Meier that some of our readers may be familiar with called “Bridging Differences.” This past week she highlighted a possibly disturbing development in the Race to the Top  competition program of the Department of Education, that dangles $4.3 billion to the states with a possible $1.3 billion to follow. Ravitch’s critique suggests that this competition is not run by pragmatists, but rather by ideologues who are led by the Bill Gates Foundation.

If this election had been held five years ago, the department would be insisting on small schools, but because Gates has already tried and discarded that approach, the department is promoting the new Gates remedies: charter schools, privatization, and evaluating teachers by student test scores.

Two of the top lieutenants of the Gates Foundation were placed in charge of the competition by Secretary Arne Duncan. Both have backgrounds as leaders in organisations dedicated to creating privately managed schools that operate with public money.

So, why should it be surprising that the Race to the Top reflects the priorities of the NewSchools Venture Fund (charter schools) and of the Gates Foundation (teacher evaluations by test scores)?

But here’s where the weirdness of this story enters.

Marc Dean Millot, a writer on education policy and someone who has not been overly critical of charter schools and their “education entrepreneurs” in the past, was contracted for 6 months to write on the Scholastic blog, “This Week in Education.” Millot had the temerity to pose some questions about those conflicts of interest at the Department of Education and had asked Sec. Duncan to nick this issue in the bud quickly.

I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources — the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3). Secretary Duncan needs to head this off now, by admitting that he and his team have potential conflicts of interests with regard to their roles in grant making, recognizing that those conflicts are widely perceived by potential grantees, and explaining how grant decisions will be insulated from interference by the department’s political appointees.

For his troubles, he was immediately sacked and the offending post removed. Fortunately, nothing is completely lost on the internet and you can read a cached version of his “Connect the Dots” piece here.

Even more chilling is Diane Ravitch’s predictions for the future, regardless of whether Secretary Duncan cleans up this apparent conflict of interest.

As hundreds and possibly thousands more charter schools open, we will see many financial and political scandals. We will see corrupt politicians and investors putting their hands into the cashbox. We will see corrupt deals where public school space is handed over to entrepreneurs who have made contributions to the politicians making the decisions. We will see many more charter operators pulling in $400,000-500,000 a year for their role, not as principals, but as “rainmakers” who build warm relationships with politicians and investors.

When someday we trace back how large segments of our public school system were privatized and how so many millions of public dollars ended up in the pockets of high-flying speculators instead of being used to reduce class size, repair buildings, and improve teacher quality, we will look to the origins of the Race to the Top and to the interlocking group of foundations, politicians, and entrepreneurs who created it.

We indeed are entering another chapter in the deepening decline in support for public education. Our looming deficit in Madison is just one example of many across the country. What we shouldn’t have to battle so vigourously is our elected and unelected “advocates.” Sadly, this also includes some of our own friends in the state capital.

Robert Godfrey

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