Category Archives: National News

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

Note: This image is not from either of the films mentioned, but from another charter school lottery. For reasons that should be clear from the post, I selected a picture where the indiividuals are difficult to identify.

Frankie Beverly & Maze, “Joy and Pain” (click to listen or download)

This is Take Two in a series.  Take One, with a fuller introduction,  can be found here.   Briefly, the idea of the series is to counter anti-teacher and anti-teachers’ union individuals and “reform” groups appropriation of the phrase “it is all about the kids”  as a means to heap scorn and ridicule on public education and public education employees by investigating some of the actions of these individuals and groups  in light of the question “is it all about the kids?”  In each take, national developments are linked to local matters in relation to the Madison Prep charter school proposal.

Take Two: A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words: Public Lotteries and  the Exploitation of Families and Children

The narrative arcs of the highly publicized films The Lottery and Waiting for Superman similarly follow families as they seek admission to charter schools via lotteries.  Both films paint  a picture of public schools as failures and present charter schools as the only means for the families to access quality education.   The words “desperate” and “desperation” are used frequently in reviews to describe the families’ desire to escape public schools (more here and here and here and here…that’s enough).  They are very effective propaganda.

Rick Ayers called Waiting for Superman “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions.” In a review for the National Education Policy Center’s always wonderful Think Twice” project, William Tate wrote of The Lottery

Unfortunately, in terms of substantiating its narrative argument, The Lottery is at times more like another game of chance—three-card monte—in that it relies far too much on skillful sleight of hand and misdirection. While there is much that is very real and poignant about this film, it fundamentally misdirects viewers away from the actual evidence about the results achieved by charter schools.

A large part of this misdirection is achieved by placing real families and children at the center of the films, by putting human faces on the complex issues of education and using their stories to make things appear simple.  The families plights are employed  in the service of advancing the cause of market-based educational “choice” policies.   The whole enterprise is exploitive, but some aspects are worse than others.

The iconic images of both films are the contrasting  joy and pain of the respective lottery winners and losers; the smiles and hugs contrasted with the tears and hugs.    Among the things kept hidden in the films is the extensive and expensive marketing campaign that produced those images.   Juan Gonzalez reported:

In the two-year period between July 2007 and June 2009, Harlem Success spent $1.3 million to market itself to the Harlem community, the group’s most recent financial filings show.

Of that total, more than $1 million was spent directly on student recruitment. The campaign included posters at bus stops, Internet and radio ads, mass mailings of glossy brochures to tens of thousands of public school parents in upper Manhattan and the Bronx and the hiring of up to 50 community residents part-time to go door-to-door in Harlem soliciting applicants.

All of this was done to fill a mere 900 seats.

I fail to see how spending $1.3 million to market 900 slots can be in the interests of the kids.

But it is the exploitation of the pain and tears that I find most disturbing.  It is the exploitation of the pain and tears that makes me question if it is “all about the kids” because I can see no way that the cause of those particular lottery-losing families quest for a quality education is served by having their moments of disappointment made a public spectacle.

I’m sure choice advocates would argue that the larger cause is being advanced and that in the name of that cause some sacrifices must be made.  As I detailed in a previous post, the idea of the larger cause of “school choice” being worthy of such a sacrifice in the name of “the kids” does  not stand up to scrutiny.  In the aggregate, neither those who enroll in “choice schools” nor those who remain in public schools have experienced a net benefit from this government-funded free-market experiment.   Exploiting some families for the benefit of other families is bad enough, exploiting them for purely ideological reasons is indefensible.

Indefensible, but common.  A search of news sites reveals countless media events staged around charter school lotteries and each one features a mini-version of the Lottery and Waiting for Superman narrative: desperate families, exultant  winners, and defeated losers.  In each case the take away is that — despite all evidence to the contrary — attending public schools instead of a charter school dooms children to brutal and hopeless future.  With each media event that narrative becomes stronger and the evidence recedes more from the public consciousness.  The kids, like everyone else, would be best served by full and honest portrayals of educational options.

Of course that’s not the idea.  The  Walton, Gates, Joyce and Casey Foundation funded National Association of Public Charter Schools publishes a “Lottery Day Event Tool Kit.”  According to the kit:

This event presents a wonderful opportunity to:
• draw media attention to the demand for high-quality charters,
• grow awareness among families of the availability of quality schools of choice, and
• create an opportunity for charters to communicate their quality and

All about the kids?   The most extensive section of kit concerns attracting and communicating with the media.  The families of applicants are treated as little more than props.  In fairness, the kit does suggest that school officials:

Write thank-you notes to parents and students who were not selected. You appreciate the time and effort and know they are disappointed. You are disappointed too, hope that they will apply again, and wish them the very best.

I like the “apply again.”  The media event will need  props again next year.

It isn’t surprising that Madison Prep is planning on following this script.   In response to questions from the Madison Metropolitan School District on admissions , the Urban League of Greater Madison wrote:

If the school receives more than 45 enrollment forms for either grade level in the first year, or enrollment forms exceed the seats available in subsequent years, Madison Prep will hold a public random lottery at a location that provides enough space for applicant students and families. (emphasis added)

What possible good would a public lottery do the winners?  Has anyone considered the harm a public lottery could do the losers?

This lack of attention given to vulnerable lottery losers stands in contrast to the supposed concern the Urban League paid to the confidentiality of parents in their recent “no media (except those friendly to Madison Prep)”  media event.  Here is how Madison.Com reported Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire’s reasoning prior to the meeting:

“This is about the parents first,” he said. “Oftentimes we don’t put them first. And we have to do that this time.

I guess after losing a lottery isn’t one of the times you “have to” put parents or children first.

By-the way,  I’m still waiting for the promised joint statement from Superintendent Dan Nerad and Kaleem Caire “about the meeting.”  If it ever comes (don’t hold your breathe), maybe that will help me understand.   I’m sure that in some fashion they will say “it is all about the kids.”  Forgive me if I don’t believe them.

For further reading (in addition to things linked in the text):

Diane Ravitch, “The Myth of Charter School.”

Michelle Fine, “Memo from Lois Lane” on the Not Waiting for Superman site.

Liana Heitin, “What About the ‘Lottery’ Losers?”

Kevin Drum, “Winners and Losers in the Charter School Lottery.”

Alan Gottlieb, “Life Lottery.”

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, National News, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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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How to Destroy Public Education — Lesson One

The Soft Boys – “I Wanna Destroy You” (click to listen or download)

One of the tactics employed by the  enemies of public education is to undermine confidence in our schools in order to weaken financial and other support and induce parents to look for non public options.  Some do this by pointing to real failures — like the achievement gaps between minority/non minority and poor/non poor students – and offering simplistic free market solutions (more on this approach in relation to the Madison Prep proposal very soon in a couple of posts I’m working on — #1 is done and up).

The Bradley, Gates, Walton….funded Fordham Institute puts a new twist on this strategy.  In a new report and the accompanying press materials they attempt to create a panic around research showing that our schools are doing exactly what they should be doing.

The report is called “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.”   The target audience is parents of high achieving students and policy makers obsessed with misapprehensions about global competitiveness.  The ostensible cause for panic is that over time students move in and out of the top decile on MAP tests; that some percentage of students who were near the top in 4th grade are not so near the top in later grades.  They don’t give much attention to the other part of this, that our schools take some kids from the lower percentiles and help them move to the top.  And although their sample  — not matched to the norm that defines the top 10%  — shows a net increase of “High Flyers,” they find a way to spin the data as a sign of failure (note that the miss-match between the sample and the norm group means that more than 10% of the students may be in the top 10%, but among the total universe of test takers and with real scores, 10% means 10% and there is no way that everyone can be in the top 10%, even in Lake Woebegon or Madison).

From the Press Release:

“If America is to remain internationally competitive, secure and prosperous,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president, “we need to maximize the potential of all our children, including those at the top of the class. Today’s policy debate largely ignores this ‘talented tenth.’ This study shows that we’re paying a heavy price for that neglect, as so many of our high flyers drift downward over the course of their academic careers.”

There is another subtext here of pitting the parents of mostly white and economically secure successful students against poor and minority families who tend to make up fewer of the top 10%.  With no apparent irony, above and  elsewhere they even borrow WEB DuBois phrase the “Talented Tenth” in the service of this divide and conquer maneuver:

The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”—and America’s future international competitiveness?

No irony; no shame.

One more thing is that the assumption behind the spin is that mobility is bad and reproducing inequality is good.  In fact, that assumption is in one way or another behind their entire campaign against the public sector and the idea of the common good.

One last note:  The report itself has some very interesting and worthwhile data and analysis on achievement mobility, growth across the deciles, demographics in relation to these.  Skip the ideology and it is worth reading.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Best Practices, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind

So you want to be my Senator?

Tammy Baldwin is running for the US Senate.  I’ve been pleased to have her as my Congressperson, but her record on education is undistinguished and unlike Russ Fiengold she rarely — if ever — has stood in opposition to the “New Washington Consensus on Education Reform.”

Today’s news, with her vote in favor of H.R. 2218, the so-called “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” brought this to mind.  So I thought I’d push a little and see what she has to say.

This is the email I sent her:

Congresswomen Baldwin

I was disappointed to see your vote in support of H.R. 2218, the so called “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act.”

At a time when our public schools are struggling with severe state and local funding cuts and continue to suffer from under-funded federal mandates, this bill further diverts money to schools which serve very few students and a low percentage of the most difficult to educate.

For more detailed questions and objections see this brief from the NSBA:

Plus I find the name very offensive. Public education funds should be used to educate students, not empower parents to exercise some free market fantasy. Why did you vote for this?

Thank you.


For more information, the Bill “fact sheet” is heresummary here:;  and text here.

I’ll post any response I get.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Save Our Schools Rally — Madison, July 30, 2011 — 3:00 PM

The Staple Singers -“Long Walk To D.C” (click to listen or download)

Yes, it is a long walk to D.C. and many of us who care deeply about the future of public education will not be able to join the Save Our Schools mass action there from July 28 to 3o.    Instead, some of us will be rallying in Madison.   Join us and help spread the word (download flier here and press release here).

Wisconsin Public School Advocates to Rally at the Capitol, Saturday July 30, 3:00 PM

A need for national, state, and local action”

As hundreds of thousands of public school supporters gather in Washington DC the weekend of July 28 to 30, 2011, Wisconsin advocates will hold a rally in support of the Save Our Schools agenda at 3:00 PM on Saturday July 30, near the State St. entrance to the Capitol.

“Public schools are under attack. There is a need for national, state, and local action in support of our schools. Wisconsin has been ground zero in this; the Save Our Schools demands from the Guiding Principles provide a great framework to build our state movement and work to expand opportunities to learn” said education activist Thomas J. Mertz.

The Save Our Schools demands are:

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities

  • An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

  • Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Doing more with less doesn’t work. “The time to act is now. While phony debates revolve around debt ceilings, students and teachers across the country are shortchanged. We need real reform, starting with finally fixing the school funding formula, and putting families and communities first. What child and what teacher don’t deserve an excellent school?” said rally organizer Todd Price, former Green Party Candidate for Department of Public Instruction and Professor of Teacher Education National Louis University.

The event will feature speeches from educators, students, parents and officials, as well as opportunities for school advocates from throughout Wisconsin to connect and organize around issues of importance in their communities.

For more information, visit: and

Thomas J. Mertz

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Exactly — A Voucher Advocate Reveals What is Wrong with Vouchers

I can't vouch for the statistic, but I like the graphic -- TJM

As the voucher movement in Wisconsin is poised to claim at least a partial victory, at an American Enterprise sessi0n ironically titled “School Voucher Programs and the Effects of a Little Healthy Competition” pro-voucher think tanker Grover Whitehurst inadvertently identified a flaw at the heart of the market-obsessed,  school privatization with public money movement.  Education Week reports:

He offered an analogy. A school district decides to allow students to buy meals from off-campus businesses, like the nearby McDonald’s. Public school cafeteria directors have several options to keep students eating in house, Whitehurst said, such as trying to improve outreach to students and encouraging the cafeteria staff to be friendlier. The cafeteria director, he said, “knows about the production function for satisfying customers.”

Just as choice in food consumption has not — in the aggregate — resulted in good and healthy choices, choice in education has not and will not result in good and healthy choices.  Many people either don’t know or don’t want what is good and healthy.  They want what is fast, tasty and popular.  The market doesn’t produce results that are healthy for society.

I don’t care much how people spend their food dollars, but I do care how we spend tax dollars and education dollars.  I don’t want it spent on the educational equivalent of McDonalds.

Thomas J. Mertz



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Scary and Wrong — The Ends of Education

No, AMPS isn’t taking advertisements,  I just wanted to point out how ridiculous the idea expressed in this one is. And note it isn’t just the Iowa Assessments, MMSD has bought the ACT/EPASS/EXPLORE program based on the same pitch.

” College and Career Readiness” as “revealed” by standardized tests starting in 6th grade.  Is this the end of education in that  goal and yard stick are test based ” College and Career Readiness”?  If so then it is the end of education for citizenship and  full and rich life.

Caveat — I know that some good can come from monitoring where students are in relation to where they will/should be going.

Thomas J. Mertz

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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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Senate Bill 95 Testimony

Sisyphus 1, by Davor, click on image for more.

The Lyres, “Don’t Give It up Now” (click to listen or download).

Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Senate Bill 95.

Due to time limitations  — both the time allotted here and the very, very short time between the release of the Bill on Friday and the scheduling of this hearing for today  — I will be confining myself to only two of the topics covered in this wide ranging measure.  Those are the dilution of the Student Achievement Guaranty in Education (SAGE) and the use of student standardized test scores  as a determinant of educator employment conditions.  I will note that I believe every section of this Bill should be thoroughly sifted and winnowed.

Before directly addressing the proposals on SAGE and the use of student standardized test scores, I’d like to say a few things about the broader trend in educational thinking and policy in Wisconsin.

Not too long ago Senator Olson chaired a Special Committee on Review of State School Aid Formula.  I sat though most of the meetings of that committee.  Although little came of it, there was a sense of optimism and ambition in the work of that committee, a sense that we can and should do better.    This spirit was captured in the title of the presentation by Professor Alan Odden “Moving From Good to Great in Wisconsin:  Funding Schools Adequately and Doubling Student Performance,” (paper of the same title here) .  It should be added that Doctor Sarah Archibald, who is anow dvising Senator Olson, was part of that work.

Almost no one is seeking greatness any more.  At best people are seeking to push the limits of “doing more with less;” at worst there is an unspoken acceptance that the children of today and tomorrow will not have the the breadth and quality of educational opportunities that their older brothers and sisters were provided.    Things like physical education for all children are now  apparently luxury we cannot afford and so you have before you a Bill which eliminates that requirement.   Maybe this one policy change isn’t the most important, but it wouldn’t be before you if academic subjects, arts education, technical education, agricultural education and in fact the entire curriculum weren’t threatened in districts around the state.   How sad that it has come to eliminating physical education requirements in order to at least partially fund other educational offering.

There are better ways.  The Special Committee Senator Olson chaired heard about some of them, others have have been put forth since then.  I happen to believe that revenue reform needs to be part of the answer, but the recent revised revenue projections provide a way halt the decline without altering the tax structure.  Joint Finance leadership has indicated they won’t consider this.  Perhaps they could be convinced otherwise, perhaps members of this committee could remind them of the responsibility of  each generation to give the next the tools to create a better future.

The proposed “flexibility” for SAGE is like the Phys Ed proposal, in that it is a step backward, only it is worse.  SAGE  is Wisconsin’s only state program targeted for children in poverty and this is crucial,  legally, educationaly and as a matter of social justice.

In the Vincent v. Voight  decision the Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that “Poverty undisputedly leads to distinct learning problems” and identified addressing these problems as part of the test of the constitutionality of a school finance system.

Odden and Archibald  — like every other proposal for reforming education finance in Wisconsin  —  followed this lead,  proposing 30%+ additional resources for free and reduced lunch students .  In a similar manner the School Finance Network  proposed a broader and genuinely more flexible poverty categorical aid to improve educational equity and outcomes.   Allowing districts to partially opt out, improves nothing.  It simply denies more children in poverty the benefits of a a successful program.

SAGE isn’t perfect, but the results have been good.   The research by the Value Added Research Center is worth reviewing to get at the details, but the results have been convincing enough that Odden and Archibald included it in their strategies for doubling achievement,  recommending that “schools be resourced for class sizes of 15 for grades K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12.”

Even scholars who are generally skeptical about the efficiency of class size reductions recognize that the effects are more pronounced for children in poverty.  One of the prime functions of our public schools is to break the cycle of inequality by providing opportunities.  We haven’t come close to doing this.  Instead of limiting access to these opportunities, as SB 95 does, we should be looking to expand access by fully funding.

Since education reform proposals originating in Florida seem to be popular with some these days, I’ll close this section  by noting that state class sizes in kindergarten through 3d grade are Constitutionally limited to 18 students (22 4th through 8th and 25 in High School).  If every young student in Florida can have the benefits of a class limited to 18, I would hope that Wisconsin could at very least not make it easier to take these benefits away from our economically disadvantaged students.

On the expanding the use of standardized tests in relation to teacher employment I’ll be brief.

First, the test that is in place is the WKCE and consensus is that the WKCE is deeply flawed as a measure of student learning, much less teacher effectiveness (something it is not designed to measure) .  It is my understanding that the earliest we will have a new assessment is 2014, which means that the earliest we would have multiple years of data to work with is 2016.  So even if you accept that these new assessments will be  appropriate tools to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness — which I do not — for at least the next 5 years SB 95 ties educator employment conditions  to WKCE results.  How can this be a good idea?

More generally, I’ll again turn to Professor Odden (I don’t believe Doctor Archibald was part of this project).  He wrote: “Merit plans in education have conceptual, strategic, technical, and political shortcomings” and advised against trying them till other options– such as knowledge and skills based systems had been exhausted.  Conceptual because of the collaborative nature of teaching and learning.  Strategic because they target the extremes instead of seeking to improve teaching across the board.  Technically because of the impossibility of designing a plan that equitably covers all teachers in all subjects in all grades in all schools….. And politically, because most educators will oppose them, creating hostility that undermines organizational unity.

I could elaborate on this list and add to it.   Almost every scholar who does not have a vested interest in standardized tests and their application is skeptical of their application to the evaluation of teachers.   This skepticism includes value added analysis.  Scholars across the spectrum,  including  the The Economic Policy Institute, The National Academies, Math for America, The Brown Center at Brookings, the Rand Corporation,  and even The American Enterprise Institute have cautioned against or rejected the use of standardized test based value added models for high stakes decision making.

Instituting a standardized test based teacher evaluations will require devoting more resources — time and money — to tests, testing and the analysis of these tests.  A recent decision in Charlotte-Mecklenburg North Carolina captures the absurd state of education policy-making.  The Charlotte Observer reports:

Next week CMS will launch trial versions of 52 new tests, including an exam for kids as young as kindergarteners who must be tested one-on-one. The tests will be used to evaluate teachers, as the budget shrinks and officials prepare to lay off faculty.

52 new tests, so they can figure out which teachers to lay off in order to do the least harm.

In closing I offer a quote from a School Superintendent in Pennsylvania, where similar “mandate relief “legislation is under consideration:

“This does not promote education, it simply promotes laying off more educators,… these so-called mandate reliefs are just more smoke and mirrors.”

Much of SB 95 is about presenting the illusion of helping schools and students and distracting from the reality that our state is abandoning our commitment to providing every student a quality education.    It is time to leave the the smoke and mirrors and get back to working for greatness.

Thomas J. Mertz

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“Flexibility” = Decline = Ugly

Remember warnings about your face getting stuck in some ugly expression? I think the champions of “flexibility” in Wisconsin and elsewhere need loud and repeated warnings that their “flexibility” in educational policy (along with privatization, cuts in funding, destruction of local control…) in fact constitutes a possibly permanent acceptance of declining educational quality  and is an ugly betrayal of our traditions and our responsibility to our children.  They are bending our schools out of shape and our children will be stuck with it.

Here is the latest iteration from the Chairs of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees (it is being fast tracked and will be the subject of a hearing in the Assembly Education Committee on Monday May 16).:

TO: Legislative Colleagues

FROM: Representative Steve Kestell & Senator Luther Olsen

DATE: May 12, 2011

RE: Co Sponsorship – K-12 Mandate Relief Legislation

We are introducing legislation to provide public schools more flexibility and mandate relief in several areas: 

  • In the semester in which a student is a participant in a high school sport, that sport can count as the student’s phy ed credit.
  • Explicitly authorizes a school district to contract for a variety of services, including orientation and mobility training, educational interpreters, audiologists, speech therapists, pupil transition services, and any services approved by the state superintendent of public instruction; and makes the costs of such a contract eligible for special education aid.
  • Under current law DPI must prorate state aid payments to school districts for transportation costs if the amount appropriated does not cover all eligible costs. Under this bill, if funds remain after DPI pays all approved claims, DPI must distribute the balance to school districts on a prorated basis.
  • Current law allows a school district to use up to 25 percent of the moneys it receives from the common school fund in a fiscal year to purchase school library computers and related software. This bill eliminates the 25 percent limit.
  • This bill allows a school board to use the results of standardized examinations to evaluate teachers without the presence of the conditions described in current law.  Under current law, the results of standardized examinations may not be used to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or as the reason for the nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract.  This bill provides that the results of standardized examinations may not be used as the sole reason to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or as the sole reason for the nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract. 
  • This bill eliminates the requirement that no more than 200 teaching days be scheduled in the regular day school period in any school year for Milwaukee Public Schools. 
  • This bill permits SAGE flexibility for a school board that has entered into or renewed a SAGE contract to choose not to comply with the class size limitation requirements in one or more grades covered by the contract in one or more schools in the school district and in one or more years of the contract term.  Offering this flexibility will help maintain SAGE in schools that might otherwise be forced to drop out of the program for financial reasons. 
  • This bill authorizes a school board to refuse to enroll a pupil during the term of the pupil’s expulsion from a public school in another state if the grounds for the pupil’s expulsion would have been grounds for expulsion in this state.  
  • This bill permits a school district to use such law enforcement records as the sole basis for taking action against a pupil under the district’s athletic code. 
  • This bill provides that, in years in which a November general election is held, the school levy certification date is moved from November 6 to November 10.

An LRB copy of the legislation will follow.

The deadline for co-sponsorship is TOMORROW Friday, May 13 at Noon. Please contact Representative Kestell’s office at 6-8530 or Senator Olsen’s office at 6-0751 to be added as a co-sponsor, or reply to this e-mail to sign onto the bill.

Some of these are OK — allowing  a longer school year in Milwaukee, some transportation adjustments, even the school levy certification date change appears to be about a real issue with scheduling referenda.  Others are ugly.

Number 1 appears to be a way to limit the need for Phys Ed classes and teachers.  Number 2 brings the privatization mania into the public schools.  Number 4, like the ARRA shifts from investments in people and books to investments in technology.

I think number 7 is the biggest betrayal here and the most telling example of the acceptance of decline.  The SAGE class size reduction targeted to early grade children in poverty is just about the only source of state education funds that recognizes and addresses economic inequality.  It has been underfunded for years, placing a burden on local districts to make up the difference.  Last session the Democrats — in the name of flexibility — raised the class size limits.  Now the Republicans want to add more “flexibility” allowing districts to ration class size reductions year-to-year and grade-to-grade.   Now we are saying to poor children that we can’t do for you what we know is right, what we did for your older brothers and sisters.  Can we at least get a “sorry’?

Of course the biggest betrayals and sources of decline overall are the pending Biennial Budget’s  reduction of state school aid by $843 Million in combination with a hard 0% growth  cap on the power of school boards to generate revenues.

Like with SAGE, this backwards trend began with the Democrats.  It was Governor Jim Doyle who in his first term dumped the 2/3 state support guarantee.   It was Democrats who in the last Biennial Budget cut general school aids by about $300 Million.  And all of this against a backdrop of 17 years of bi-partisan refusal to fix a broken school funding system which even when “fully funded” required annual cuts to programs and services in most districts.

The thing about going backwards is that simply getting back to the starting point becomes harder and harder and returning to a forward direction almost impossible.    After the last Biennial Budget UW Public Budgets Scholar Andrew Reschovsky did some calculations  on how much it would take to return state school aid to the growth levels of the previous decade. If Wisconsin wanted to completely offset the cuts done in 2009-11 it would require $1,552.4 Million in additional state aid; to simply return to the old trend line without making up for the cuts would take $664.4 Million in additional state aid.

Suck in reverse.  Decline is the new new normal; almost nobody is talking about getting back to where we were and even fewer are trying to move the state forward (the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools — WAES —  is just about the only consistent voice reminding people of the possibility of a truly better way).

We’ve heard a lot from Governor Walker and the Republicans about how we need to cut budgets in order to not burden our children with public debts and deficits (they absolutely refuse to consider revenue reforms which could address these).    But their supposed concern for the  next generation doesn’t extend to providing them the same level  of educational opportunities that their older brothers and sisters had.   This, like “flexibility” is a betrayal.  They don’t care about our children’s future; they care about dismantling the public sector.

Walker is also big on “tools” except when it comes to giving our children the tools they need to be prosperous and successful.

Just this week, they have made it clear that their program goes beyond “no new taxes” when  despite pleas from WAES, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards State Superintendent Tony Evers and others, they refused to consider the use of any of the projected revenue increases to diminish cuts to education (and here).  They seem to be happily stuck in reverse, in decline.

There is one piece here that I need to touch on before closing and that’s number 5, the expanded use of standardized tests for teacher evaluation, discipline, suspension, nonrenewal,  and dismissal.    I’ve written about what’s wrong with this many times before (see here  and and the video here posted by Robert Godfrey).  There is so much more to say, but for now I’ll just quote a recent column from  John Ewing, president of Math for America (read the whole thing!).

Making policy decisions on the basis of value-added models has the potential to do even more harm than browbeating teachers. If we decide whether alternative certification is better than regular certification, whether nationally board certified teachers are better than randomly selected ones, whether small schools are better than large, or whether a new curriculum is better than an old by using a flawed measure of success, we almost surely will end up making bad decisions that affect education for decades to come.

That last line about sums it up with this whole “flexibility” package: “bad decisions that affect education for decades to come.”  Stuck with ugly.

Thomas J. Mertz.


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