Category Archives: Scott Walker

Who is Paul Vallas and why is he coming to Madison?

Photograph by AP/Worldwide Photos

As Jim Anchower says, “I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya…” Sometimes you need a break; expect more soon.

Paul Vallas will be featured at a “school reform town hall meeting” this Saturday, May 26, 1:00 PM at LaFollette High School.  The announcements feature “Madison Metropolitan School District, Verona Area School District, United Way of Dane County, Urban League of Greater Madison & Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County” as “collaborating” hosts, but as reported by Matt DeFour the United Way  “has requested that our name be removed from all upcoming communications related to the event, but will attend to hear the conversation from all those involved.”

Attempts to clarify MMSD’s role have not yielded a response.  You can try yourself:  Board of Education: board@madison.k12.wi.us, Supt. Dan Nerad: dnerad@madison.k12.wi.us.  I’ve been told unofficially that MMSD is donating the space, which would mean that your tax dollars and mine are being used (see the district facilities rental policy here).  It would really be a shame if our district collaborated in bringing Vallas here, there is very little in his version of school reform that our community, or any community will benefit from.

I can’t answer why he is coming to Madison.  I presume that those who are bringing him would like to see Madison adopt the policies Vallas favors.

I can and will say some things about who Vallas is.  As is common with these things, it depends on who you ask.  The Koch and Bradley funded Manhattan Institute anointed Vallas with their Urban Innovator Award for 2006 (other recipients include Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and somewhat inexplicably Jerry Brown).   The (also Bradley funded) Heartland Institute has had consistently good things to say about Vallas.  You might recall that they are the ones with the secret “Operation Angry Badger” plan to “help defend and secure” the rule by the FitzWalker gang.   On the other side, at the Daily Censored, Danny Weil called Vallas “”vassal and executioner of public schools.”

The Wikipedia entry provides a fair if spotty overview of his career.  Here’s a short version.  When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was given control of the Chicago schools in 1995, he appointed then City Budget director Vallas as CEO.  Vallas served till 2002, when disappointing progress the defeat of a Vallas friendly slate in the teacher union election led to his resignation (and here).  He ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for Governor losing to Rod Blagojevich. From there it was to Philadelphia, where he served under the State appointed School Reform Commission from 2002 to 2007 and oversaw (among other things) what was then “the nation’s largest experiment in privatized management of schools.”  He flirted with other Illinois Gubernatorial runs in 2005 and 2008, and the Cook County Board President in 2009 as a Republican (prompting the question, what kind of person became a Republican between 2008 and 2009).  Vallas then became head of the State administered and Charter dominated Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), where he served from 2007 until 2011.  The RSD is now unquestionably the largest school privatization effort in US history (see this great video of a parent complaining that when Charters are the only choice, there is no choice, more here). More recently he was tapped by an illegally appointed Board as interim Superintendent in Bridgeport CN.  His $228,000 salary is being paid for by the private Bridgeport Education Reform Fund.  Not surprisingly, Vallas’ plan for Bridgeport includes extensive blurring of the line between public and private.  It should probably be mentioned that Vallas’ resume also includes well compensated activities in Chile (leading to mass protests against the reforms he brought) and Haiti on behalf of the Inter-American Development Bank.

A couple of things stand out in his career.  One is that he’s never worked with a locally elected education authority (ie an elected School Board); the other is that privatization is prominent in his toolbox.  He explained the former to New York Times reporter Paul Tough:

When I asked Paul Vallas what made New Orleans such a promising place for educational reform, he told me that it was because he had no “institutional obstacles” — no school board, no collective bargaining agreement, a teachers’ union with very little power. “No one tells me how long my school day should be or my school year should be,” he said. “Nobody tells me who to hire or who not to hire. I can hire the most talented people. I can promote people based on merit and based on performance. I can dismiss people if they’re chronically nonattending or if they’re simply not performing.”

On the latter, a quote from an article Vallas wrote for the aforementioned Manhattan Institute:

We also have flexibility when it comes to work rules, which are decided by the board rather than the state. This has allowed us to do a lot of privatization. Our alternative schools are private schools, as are many of our special-ed schools. Our vocational education programs are also privately run to some extent. And we have contracted out for custodians, lunchroom attendants and the trades. In our system, schools have a choice. If they are not happy with their in-house services, they can privatize them. There’s competition.

It should be added that privatization also includes extensive pinstripe patronage contracts, something Vallas himself is now taking advantage of via his consulting company, winning a $1 million dollar contract that brings him back to the Chicago scene and raising some questions of transparency and conflicts of interest in Rockford).

From these quotes, it is also clear that Vallas would prefer not to have to deal with unions either.  In Chicago and Philadelphia, Charter School expansion helped limit the union presence and Vallas also moved to replace other union workers — such as custodians and food service employees — by contracting with private companies, resulting in lost benefits.  Like many of the market-based school reformers, Vallas talks a good game about addressing the impacts of poverty via education while making it harder for the working poor in his employ to provide for their families.

Vallas also likes tests, a lot.  As in Philadelphia, One of the first things Vallas did in Bridgeport was to institute an extra round of standardized tests and the reason given was that “Traditionally, instruction wanes after the administration of the state tests.  Unfortunately, this “lull” in teaching and learning deprives our students of much-needed academic support.”  This echoes what Vallas said about test-based accountability in Chicago:

Vallas does not see fear as a negative. “My first reaction is that we went for decades of no fear, and where was the creativity then?” he asks, irritation rising in his voice. “Fear is a consequence of poor performance.

“People who are afraid may not have the makeup to move schools forward,” he adds. “A majority of teachers and principals have a lot of confidence in what we are doing and are delighted that we are focusing on raising student achievement.”

The use of fear was part of the picture in Philadelphia for educators and for studentsVallas is also a fan of test (and fear) based evaluations as a basis for teacher employment.

Fear, tests and transparency all came together in Vallas $1.4 million lawsuit against Chicago teacher and Substance reporter George Schmidt, who had published flawed test items from the Vallas initiated Chicago Academic Standards Exams.  Well before Pinapplegate, Schmidt was blowing the whistle on bad tests.  As he details here, his reward from Vallas was the loss of his job and years spent fighting the suit (and to keep Substance going), but was ultimately vindicated when the monetary damages claim was reduced to $0.  Substance is still going strong.

Discussion of testing inevitably leads to discussions of test scores and much of Vallas reputation rests on his reported gains in this area.  Leaving aside the limited utility of standardized teats as a measure of learning or teacher or school or district (or CEO) quality a closer look at Vallas’ record in Chicago does not indicate marked improvement and it is likely that a similar analysis for Philadelphia would also deflate the grandiose claims.  The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) report “Trends in Chicago’s Schools Across Three Eras of Reform”  This report”addressed the problems in the public statistics by carefully constructing measures and methods to make valid year-over-year comparisons…to create an accurate account of the progress made by CPS since the early 1990s.”  Some of the problems addressed had to do with changes in tests and cut scores, others “not only other changes to the test format, testing conditions, and scoring methods, but also changes in school policies—grade promotion standards, testing policies, and eligibility around bilingual and special education services—and shifts in the types of students being served by the schools.”

I want to point to the “grade promotion” or retention policies as a particular area of importance.  In both Chicago and Philadelphia, Vallas instituted test-based retention policies (an idea so bad that even Scott walker was convinced to abandon it).  Retention’s positive impact on test scores is akin to CEO’s concentrating on quarterly profits and not the big picture of long term health.  Students in third grade the second time around will post higher third grade scores, but the gains are temporary and they are more likely to drop out and suffer other negative outcomes (you can read about the Chicago Civil Rights action on retention here and here and more from Philadelphia here.).

What the CCSR found in general was that “Many of the findings in this report contradict trends that appear in publicly reported data. For instance, publicly reported statistics indicate that CPS has made tremendous progress in elementary math and reading tests, while this analysis demonstrates only incremental gains in math and almost no growth in reading.”  The same pattern is true for the Vallas years, some slight improvement in some reading scores, and slight but more pronounced improvements in math scores.  Large racial gaps grew, Chicago continued to lag behaind the state and “Despite progress, the vast majority of CPS students have academic achievement levels that are far below where they need to be to graduate ready for college.”  It should also be noted that graduation rate improvements slowed under Vallas.  The whole report is worth a read, especially the section on “Changes in School Climate and Organizational Supports,”

No equivalent analysis has been done for Philadelphia, but there is reason to doubt the reported double digit and even 20%+ increases in students meeting standards over Vallas’ tenure.  With the latter there is some apples to oranges going on, the 2002 numbers cover grades 5.8 and 11; but by 2007 grades 3,4,6 and 7 have been added.   Philadelphia did not participate in NAEP during the Vallas years, but the performance on the Terra Nova were not as impressive as it was on the state tests and even here there were  problems.  Still, it is likely that scores did rise significantly in real ways under Vallas, but also needs to be noted that when he left only 47.0% of tested students were proficient in math, only 40.7 in reading and that that the schools turned over to outside Educational Management Organizations were below these dismal numbers.

Post Katrina New Orleans is a classic “not the same students, not the same schools” case that makes comparisons over time difficult, but there is reason not to believe the hype there either.  The Miracle Schools Wiki has lots of links that raise doubts and more.  Of particular concern are allegations made by the Louisiana School Board Association. of “scrubbing” low performers.

There is lots more out there on Vallas,  if you are interested I’d suggest clicking the links in the post, the links below and skipping the event.  If you care about schools and students, your Saturday would be much better spent working to get Scott Walker out of office (contact United Wisconsin to volunteer).  I know mine will be.

For further reading and viewing:

Diane Ravitch, “The Very Rewarding Job of Saving Schools.”

PBS coverage of Vallas (extensive on New Orleans).

Martha Abele Mac Iver and Douglas J. Mac Iver, “WORKING PAPER – Privatizing Education in Philadelphia: Are Educational Management Organizations Improving Student Achievement?”

Edward Hayes, “The man, the myth, the continuing nonsense.”

Debra Vaughan, Laura Mogg, Jill Zimmerman and Tara O’Neill”Transforming Public Education in New Orleans:  The Recovery School District.

Two takes on the fate of the Philadelphia School, now slated for dissolution:

Daniel Denvir, “Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools? Underfunded. Overburdened. About to be sold for scrap.

Doug Martin, “In the City of Corporate Love and Beyond: The Boston Consulting Group, Gates, and the Filthy Rich.”

and since these were mentioned in the Matt DeFour story

The Washington Times, “Military Schools on the Rise.”

Don Feder, “Book covers breach wall of separation.”

Jeffrey Felshman, “The Ten Commandments According to Paul” (parody).

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, education, Elections, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

Myths of Madison Prep, Part 1

Van Morrison – “Too Many Myths” (click to listen or download)

The discussion around the Madison Preparatory Academy (MPA) proposal and the related events and processes has been heated, but not always grounded in reality.  Many have said that just having this conversation is a good thing.  I don’t agree.  With myths being so prevalent and prominent, a productive conversation is nearly impossible.  Since the vote is scheduled for Monday (12/19), I thought it would be good to take a closer — fact based, but opinionated — look at some of the myths.  This is part one, the first set.

Three things to get out of the way first.

One is that the meeting is now scheduled to be held at 6:00 Pm at the Memorial High School Auditorium and that for this meeting the sign up period to speak will be from 5:45 to 6:00 PM (only).

Second is that much of the information on Madison Prep can be found at the district web page devoted to the topic.  I’m not going do as many hyperlnks to sources as I usually do. because much of he material is there  Time constraints, the fact that people rarely click the links I so carefully include, and because some of the things I’ll be discussing are more along the lines of “what people are saying/thinking” than official statements also played a role in this decision.  I want to emphasize the last.  Some of the myths being examined come straight from “official” statements or sources,  some are extensions of “official” things taken up by advocates, and some are self-generated by unaffiliated advocates.

Last, some thoughts on myths.  With my students, I often do assignments on the relationship between myth and history.  There are three things that I tell my students to keep an eye on.  The first is to look at the relationship between the myth and reality (most, but not all myths have some basis in reality).  Second I ask them to think about how people believing the myth shaped their actions and what came next.  Last, is the “follow the money” idea of exploring who benefitd from particular myths and the actions they led to.  I’m going to be doing some of all of these, but mostly I’m also going to leave these up to the reader to ponder.

On to the myths, in no real order.

Madison Prep is a Litmus Test on MMSD’s and/or Madison’s Commitment to Students of Color and/or Students in Poverty and/or Innovation and/or Charter Schools

Madison Prep is a very specific plan with very specific educational strengths and weaknesses, potential legal entanglements, and a myriad of other issues.  The reactions and vote on Madison Prep are largely about these.

I’m reminded that Paul Soglin initially portrayed the Edgewater Development (which he then favored) as a litmus test for Madison.  Now as Mayor it looks like he has killed the project.  As he should have known in 2009, the details and specifics matter.

Yes, attitudes on all of these things listed in the heading  have shaped some of the positions people have taken, but people who share a deep commitment to the education of students of color or in poverty are on both sides of the issue, people who care little about these things are on both sides of the issue.  Many advocates for MPA believe it will help these students,  many opponents believe that it will not (more on that below and in part 2, but see this related post for now)and that it will hurt the majority of these students who will remain in MMSD schools by taking resources away.  It is a pretty bad litmus test if that’s the case.  Similar things are true with the other things in the heading (I doubt many Charter School opponents are in favor although some Charter proponents are against, … you get the idea).

And the alternative isn’t the “status quo.” That’s a false frame that has been very useful for those who attack public education.  Not doing Madison Prep does not mean not doing anything or anything better or different.

Madison Prep advocates have convinced many that there is a need to do things better and/or differently — some of us didn’t need to be convinced — but that’s much different than making the case to do MPA  (some of this is covered in the myths examined below and in part two).

It Is/Isn’t (All) About the Students

I addressed some aspects of this in relation to the Urban League and the “choice” movement in this post and this post.  In those posts I concluded that in the case of much of the “choice” movement there are larger anti-public sector forces in play, that via Kaleem Caire ULGM has strong links to those parts of the “choice” movement, and that at least one part of the Madison Prep plan needlessly exploits children and families in order to benefit the school and the idea of “choice.”

There is a more general part of these myths that applies to all of the institutional players.  It isn’t insulting to recognize the ULGM, MMSD, MTI, and even the Board of Education all have turf at stake in this matter and that they all have imperatives to protect (in the case of MTI a legal imperative to protect) and expand their turf.

It probably isn’t going too far to extend this to many of the individuals whose professional pride, reputations and to some extent livelihoods are in play.  Non-professional advocates also bring some pride to the table and many — myself included — have visions of public education we seek to expand that might be considered “turf.”

Recognizing that it isn’t “all about the students” doesn’t mean that for all it isn’t partially, or mostly, or even primarily about the good of the students, but it does take away the ridiculous posturing some are so fond of.   It can be very useful to document and delineate what else it seems to be about for institutions and individuals, but to attack one side for their interests while refusing to  recognize that  in one way or another everyone has some interest in something other than “the students”  is wrong.

It should be added that for the professional MMSD administrators, I would guess whatever desires they have to protect their turf are balanced by an understanding that controversy is rarely good for careers or school districts.  I think we can see some of this in the last myth in part one.

There Are No Legal Barriers to Approving Madison Prep As A Non-Instrumentality or Risking Legal Challenges In Order to Vote Yes is Worth It

On these legal issues (remember that according to  the Administrative Analysis the sex segregation matters still demand further review, see the ACLU for more) , the initial official MMSD position starts on page 26 of the Administrative Analysis, Ed Hughes posted his unofficial views here and the official ULGM response is here; the “despite the legal issues, vote yes” stuff is all over, the best source being this letter from Kaleem Caire.

Ed Hughes recent proposal to vote to open the school in 2013 demonstrates that  these legal barriers to approval are real and formidable.

I am not an attorney ( I written and  taught legal history, but that doesn’t count for much), so take my legal analysis for what it is, the work of an interested amateur with nothing at stake but pride.  In my opinion there are significant legal barriers to approving a non-instrumentality charter school which would violate the work preservation clauses of existing contracts.

The ULGM makes a couple of main counter legal arguments.

One is that contracts contrary to statutes  or limiting the exercise of statutory powers are void.  I see a couple of problems with this.  First, the cases cited are more about contracts that restrict exercise of constitutional duties than they are about statutory powers.  Second, and I’m not sure this is relevant, the contract did not restrict the exercise of powers when it was signed; it only restricts  the exercise because Act 10 subsequently made memorandums of understanding impossible.  If there is a conflict, it seems to be between Act 10 and the Charter School Statute.

The other is that Act 65, which allows for public employee contracts to be revised in order to cut pay or benefits also allows for a revision to employee non-union (or maybe lower paid union) employees at a non-instrumentality charter school.  This does not seem to be contemplated in the law, but I’d like to see a reaction to this (and the other issues raised by ULGM) from the district legal team.  We will probably get that on Monday; I’d like it sooner (so that we could all have something better than my inadequate legal interpretations and scribblings to go by).

It is likely that even a yes vote would not result in MPA opening.  It would be tied up in courts and odds appear to be that MMSD on behalf of ULGM would lose.

The “vote yes despite the contract/law issues” argument is based on astounding hyperbolic rhetoric, comparisons that don’t work and an end game I don’t understand.  Again, the case is made for the urgency of doing something, but that’s the litmus test myth, something does not equal MPA.   There are some very good reasons to believe that Madison Prep will do more harm than good and there is not a lot of reason to believe that opening this school will accomplish anything comparable to the examples given by Kaleem Caire of ending ” Jim Crow,” or winning Woman Suffrage (see below).   At absolute most, a few kids will have greatly improved educational opportunities.  That would be something real and good, but the scope and scale are wrong for the comparison (on the general overselling of charter schools, the miracleschools wiki is a great place to start).

The examples employed by Caire are about civil and human rights, what ULGM is asking for is to trash a contract in order to open a school.  You can see how strained is this in how Caire squeezes the word “contracts” into his rhetoric:

More importantly, will the Board of Education demonstrate the type of courage it took our elders and ancestors to challenge and change laws and contracts that enabled Jim Crow, prohibited civil rights, fair employment and Women’s right to vote, and made it hard for some groups to escape the permanence of America’s underclass? We know this is not an easy vote, and we appreciate their struggle, but there is a difference between what is right and what is politically convenient.

The history invoked is one of challenging, (sometimes breaking), and changing laws in pursuit of rights.   There is no right to open a school,  only a right to a due process decision on an application (the myth that MPA has not been treated fairly in this process, should be in part 2).  Contracts aren’t part of that history either, except in the sense that when contracts — like housing covenants  and yes ,  some union contracts (discriminatory promotional practices come to mind)  — were thought to be in violation of civil rights laws they were challenged in court (or administrative processes) after the laws were changed, not broken or disregarded.    School Boards don’t have the power to change laws and shouldn’t trash contracts.

On a radio show MPA Board Member John Roach went even further, saying that MMSD should emulate President Obama, who — according to Roach — “broke contracts” in order to kill Osama bin Laden.   In a sense diplomatic agreements are contracts and they were violated, but school boards are not heads of sovereign nations, and opposing Madison Prep really has little in common with the decisions on the choice of tactics in the “War on Terror.”

Or maybe it does, because what Caire and Roach and others are doing is a scorched earth fight, “destroying the village in order to ‘save’ it.”  Presenting these kind of false hopes and choices in this manner makes the always difficult work of school-community relations more difficult by creating unnecessary expectations and  that result  in even greater distrust.

I think the ULGM case is weak; it certainly isn’t a slam-dunk, black letter law thing.  If the vote were yes, there would certainly be challenges, legal expenses incurred, perhaps other repercussions in labor relations, and I’d guess the school wouldn’t open anyway.  With all this in mind, I don’t understand the thinking behind organizing around a false hope in a manner that will make working together in the future harder.

The Madison Prep Educational Plan Has Been Thoroughly Vetted, by MMSD, The Board and the Community.

I can’t count the number of times during this I’ve said the educational program should be central to this discussion.  It has not been.  Some of this is because other — mostly legal — issues have come up, some of it is because the MPA PR campaign and official filings have been very light on discussing how and why they see their program meeting the needs of those whose needs are not being met by MMSD, some of it is because the MMSD administration failed to address these in their analysis, some of it is that all educational programs (proposed or actual) are complex, filled with uncertainty and take work to understand.

When I point out the lack of attention given to the educational program, I am often met with disbelief or contradiction.  I can’t prove that it has not been examined, but I can point to some evidence.  The best evidence that I can think of is the official “Administrative Analysis.”  Here are some excerpts from the “conclusions” on the educational aspects (you won’t find much about education):

On sex segregation:

The Board should review these legal implications before making a judgment regarding how to proceed on this issue.

On the International Baccalaureate  (after a paragraph asking about alternatives to IB at MPA that seems to ignore the statement in the MPA plan that says “Madison Prep will offer both the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP) to all its students”, the “analysis” “reccomends”

If Madison Prep is approved, it is recommended that more information be provided detailing the specific requirements for graduation.

And this on “College Preparatory Educational Program”

MMSD Response: The IB curriculum is aligned with the goal of college and career readiness without remediation.

On Harkness Teaching there is a little more in the way of questions, but no more in the way of analysis and conclusions:

…A specific teaching model (e.g. Harkness Teaching) has strengths for a range of learning and social areas (e.g. inquiry-based learning), but used exclusively, may not address the full range of learning situations required. Will other teaching methods/models will be included in Madison Prep? If so, what are examples of other acceptable models and specifically when would other teaching models be appropriate?

Recommendation: If Madison Prep is approved, it is recommended that further detail be provided regarding the appropriateness of Harkness Teaching as an exclusive teaching model or provide descriptions of the range of other acceptable teaching models and when they would be appropriate. Clarify if this method will be used daily, in all subjects, or for specific types of learning on a less frequent basis. Further information is requested regarding the potential impact on student learning and achievement during the several year period of teacher efficacy in situations where teachers may be novice in both methodology and curriculum.

This is actually the closest the analysis gets to engaging in educational issues.  All the rest are about technical matters.  My favorite is the one on the extended day/year that is a back-and-forth about a misreading of the calendar.

Remember that “how a decision to establish or not establish the proposed charter school will impact families to be served” is among the things the Administration is required to provide and the Board of Education is required to consider.  I would think that the education program would be central to that., but it isn’t there, nor has there been an extended Board discussion on this.  No wonder so many  prominent backers are silent on MPA’s educational program.  Which brings me to the next myth, but that has till wait till the next post.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, Contracts, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

ALEC and Bill Gates, the Mask Comes Off

The Cramps, “What’s Behind the Mask” (click to listen or download)

This morning a friend tweeted me a grant listing from the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).    Gates is giving ALEC $375,000

[T]o educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement

While bankrolling some of the worst market and profit driven, privatizing, “choice,” teacher and union bashing, data-obsessed, “reforms,” all the while leveraging public money for private ends,  Gates and the Gates Foundation have tried to preserve the illusion that they are “friends” of public education.  The mask is off.  No friend of public education or America’s children supports ALEC and their mission to destroy the public sector (see ALEC Exposed).

A few words from Susan Troller’s farewell column are in order (goodbye and good wishes  Susan, you’ll be missed):

Not all “reformers” actually want reform.

There’s a well-funded national campaign made up of conservative think tanks, public relations firms and big-money donors whose mission is to discredit public schools. Some of them just hate the teacher unions and disdain teachers and all public workers.

Others are ideologically opposed to the notion of public education and would like to privatize everything; their releases provide a steady litany about the advantages of “choice” schools, from private voucher schools to for-profit charters that operate with public dollars.

Had their been any doubt that Gates was part of this, there is no longer.

For more see:

Mark Pocan, “ALEC Watch: What I did on My Summer Vacation.”

Doug Merlino, “Bill Gates and the Shadow Department of Education.”

Anthony Cody, “Bill Gates’ Big Play: How Much Can Money Buy in Education?”

Beth Slovic, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation” (from Seattle Education blog).

Dr. Roy Schestowitz, “Gates Monitor: February 2011 on Bill Gates-Funded Lobbyists Who Drive US Education Agenda.”

Nancy Flanagan, “Microsoft wins TEACH campaign from Education Department.”

Thomas J. Mertz

 

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Filed under Accountability, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, education, Gimme Some Truth, National News, Scott Walker

“It’s time to spread the truth about impact of budget on Wisconsin’s public schools”

Click the graphic for more information on WAES.

The Jam – “Time for Truth” (click to listen or download)

I haven’t posted any Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools  advocacy material this way lately, so here goes.  Short version:  The “tools” aren’t working, our students aren’t getting the opportunities to learn they need and deserve, and the only way this will change is if we don’t give up, we keep agitating.

Dear education advocate:

We need your help now.  We’ve identified you as not only people who care about kids, schools and their communities, but also who have the knowledge and skills to work on their behalf. We need your help in reaching out to the rest of the state—the media, community organizations and your neighbors—in pointing out how destructive recent changes have been to our children’s opportunities to learn.

This afternoon, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators released data that show, for the first time, the devastating impact of the most recently passed state budget.
While we all knew intuitively that a $1.6 billion cut in education would have an impact, the data is even worse than we could have expected and is a clear signal that our state is moving in the wrong direction as it relates to our schools.

The report is attached along with the release that was distributed from WAES. Here are the messages that we want to convey:

  • The state budget cut education by historic proportions. The state budget cut aid and revenue limit authority to Wisconsin schools by $1.6 billion in the last budget.  This is the largest cut to Wisconsin education ever and is one of the biggest cuts made by any state in the history of the country .
  • These cuts are having a devastating impact on our schools.  The data is in, and it shows that the cuts to Wisconsin schools, as a result of the state budget, are devastating and much worse than we could have expected.
  • Class sizes have skyrocketed. What happens when you cut teaching positions? Obviously, class sizes get larger. In schools large and small across the state, the average size of classes, especially at the elementary school level, have increased dramatically.
  • Course offerings have decreased.  The new data show that the numbers of programs and services for students in our public schools have declined significantly.  What’s worse, some classes, including programs for gifted students and the kinds of classes that are needed for admittance into highly selective colleges and universities, are gone. For those students who want to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison or another highly selective school, the challenge has become even greater.
  • Schools face even greater financial challenges next year.While the news is terrible for schools this year, the data show that half of Wisconsin schools are using one-time federal dollars to balance this year’s budget shortfall, money that will not be available next year.  Moreover, two out of three districts say that next year’s cuts will be even bigger than this year’s.
  • >We’re heading in the wrong direction. The data show that we are clearly moving in the wrong direction when it comes to our schools.  At a time when the knowledge and skills of our graduates are more important than ever before—not only for them but for our entire state—why are we making such devastating cuts to our schools?

Here is what you can do now: While we are working to connect with reporters who are covering the story from a state-level perspective, we need your help in reaching reporters, bloggers, and media outlets in your area.  Here are some specific things you can do right now —

  • >Find out what’s happening at home: The data from DPI tells the story at the state level, and it is devastating to children. If you can work with your local school district to determine the local impact, it will be even more powerful.
  • Connect with local reporter: We need to make sure this report is covered in your local newspaper.  Toward that end, if you know a reporter at your local paper who would write about this issue, please contact them and urge them to do so.
  • Write a letter to the editor: We also encourage you to write a letter-to-the-editor of your local newspaper for publishing.  If you need them, e-mail addresses of many Wisconsin newspapers are attached to this message.
  • Contact local talk radio hosts and ask to go on their shows: We need to get our voices heard on this issue. Contact the hosts of local radio shows and ask them if you can go on their show to talk about the report.
  • Connect with others who will amplify our voices: Think about others in your area who are friendly to our cause and can help carry these messages.  Do you know someone who writes a popular local blog? Are you close with your local PTA/PTO president? Use your imagination and your connections to tell others about this report, and ask them to spread our messages.

Whatever you do, please do something and make sure to let us know your plans. Thanks.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cap Times, Folkbum, and a whole lot of other places have more.

To help recall Scott Walker, check in with United Wisconsin.

Thomas J. Mertz

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People Have the Power: SB 22 Dead (For Now)

Patti Smith – “People Have the Power” (click to listen or download) 

Susan Troller is reporting in the Cap Times that SB 22, the bill creating a partisan, political state charter school authorizing board to override the wishes of local school boards (and more) is dead, for now.  This is a huge victory for  public education in the state,  local control, and the Wisconsin people’s mobilization.

The bill came before the Senate Education Committee on March 23, in the wake of the mass protests.  Hundreds of newly empowered individuals and groups showed up to counter the well laid plans of the FitzWalker gang, School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Charter School Association, American Federation for Children and the rest of the deformers (including Madison Prep’s Kaleem Caire).  The hearing took 10 hours (so long that I had to leave before I could read my testimony).  It was spontaneous, invigorating and beautiful (you can watch it here, via WisconsinEye or read Rebecca Kemble’s report).

It was one of the first occasions where the energy of the protests was translated into this sort of action.   Soon after, much of the energy went toward the Senatorial recall efforts.  This was and is a controversial choice.  Many, myself included, had and have mixed feelings about the wisdom of diverting small d democratic potential into big D Democratic politics.

The wisdom of that choice is still open to debate (and is being debated within the Occupy Movement), but the defeat of SB 22 strengthens the case that it was  a good choice (it does not seal the case by any means).

As Troller explains the post-recall one seat Republican edge made GOP Senator Dale Schultz’s reluctance to support and GOP Senator Mike Ellis’s non-committal enough to kill the bill, for now.

The “for now” means that just that; this could come back from the dead.  One friend suggests that we should all send Schultz and Ellis notes of thanks and support to make sure they don’t defect (and you can do that by clicking their names above) .  My big worry is making sure that the Democrats don’t defect, particularly Senator Lena Taylor.

There are many things I like about Lena Taylor, but she is a favorite of the hedge-fund managers for education deform operating under the name Democrats for Education Reform (DFER, read more at DFER Watch) , having received their generous donations in the past and been named their “Reformer of the Month” for February 2011DFER Wisconsin was and is a strong proponent of SB 22.

In politics money talks and these people have money (as the recent Imagine Schools scandals remind us, some of that money was appropriated from schools and children via charter school scams).   DFER and aligned groups dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the recent Denver School Board races; with $3.6 million in contributions “Stand for Children” was able to push their deforms through the Illinois Legislature; the list goes on.

So contacting Lena Taylor would be a good idea too.  You can grab talking points from Public School for the Public Good, AMPS comrade Todd Price; I love My Public School, Martin Scanlan of Marquette, and my testimony linked above.  We may not have millions to give, but we people do have the power, when they use it.

Adding to the “what next” list, the Scott Walker recall kicks in very soon and United Wisconsin is the go to place to help out with that.  Just remember that progress may start with getting better people in office, but it isn’t going to get very far if we don’t remain mobilized, remain powerful.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Of two minds and no sense in Two Rivers

There is an editorial in the Herald Times Reporter on the Two Rivers school budget that presents contradictory ideas and ultimately makes no sense.  If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find more that doesn’t make sense.

The editorial titled “Two Rivers school budget laudable” is mostly in praise of the Board of Education for acting on their commitment ” to not raising taxes.”  To do this the Board “cut about $2 million from its $23.7 million budget.”  According to the editorial (the Two Rivers district does not post budget documents), about half of this amount came from increasing staff insurance and pension payments.  The rest from what the paper calls ” another $1 million in labor and materials savings.”

At least the editorial points out that the FitzWalker “tools” don’t actually work at the district level stating clearly “The budget repair bill provision is not, however, the panacea envisioned by Republican lawmakers.”

At this point I want to point out that nowhere in the editorial are students or the quality of education mentioned.  The closest it gets is a couple of places where providing “adequate services” is mentioned as a goal, each time along with and apparently inferior to ” protecting taxpayers.’  Two  paragraphs on Manitowoc, introduced as another district where the “tools” don’t work, is an example of this :

Other school districts are in the same situation. Manitowoc Superintendent Mark Swanson said recently that the tax levy could rise 9.5 percent under current revenue cap and state-aid formulas. The school board likely will need to take austerity measures, including possible staff reductions, to make sure that projection doesn’t become reality.

Swanson, along with other school and municipal leaders throughout the state, wonders what impact this all will have on their ability to provide the services they are paid to deliver — now and in the future.

The penultimate paragraphs capture the contradictory thinking:

Rhetoric about serving the taxpayer at the least possible cost rings hollow if all the tools to achieve that goal are lacking. Commitment to hold the line on taxes is one thing, getting there is quite another.

We hope that other school districts and cities in Manitowoc County follow the lead of the Two Rivers public schools and make a good-faith effort to hold the line on property taxes.

Note “serving the taxpayer” not serving the students, but even in this formulation the impossibility of quality services under these conditions is apparent.

The editorial closes with more praise for Two Rivers and holds that district up as an example for others to emulate:

Two Rivers has demonstrated it can be done, even against highly challenging odds.

“It” being not raising taxes, apparently.  How did Two Rivers do this?  That’s where things get even more senseless.

Some of the answers can be found in a Herald Times news story:

The contract with the teachers union even includes a provision that taxes would not be increased. He said the teachers agreed to a pay freeze and an increase in the amount they pay toward health insurance premiums if needed to balance the budget without raising taxes, but that didn’t become necessary.

First, what is in the water of those Two Rivers?  Why would a Union — if they could (and even pre-FitzWalker tax rates were not subject to collective bargaining, so I don’t see how it could have happened) — negotiate a tax freeze?  Senseless.

And remember that the editorial said that “About half of that savings resulted from the pension and health benefit requirement,” and this story also refers “teachers having to pay more toward their retirement and health insurance benefits,” so something is hinky or at least confused.  Are they paying more or not?

But the real senselessness is found where this and other articles detail where some of the other$1 million in savings came from:

The board had decided to take $235,310 from its fund balance to help balance the budget without raising taxes.

Depleting fund balances is unsustainable (and not an option all districts have).  Very little sense there.

I’m not sure where the other $700,000 plus came from but a column by District Administrator Randy Fredrikson gives a clue on some of it:

A significant portion of our levy is still paying off the new high school and Koenig Elementary School. We have aggressively refinanced these obligations when time and interest rates permitted. This refinancing has also helped us control the budget over the past several years

In order to achieve significant savings from refinancing you have to have significant debt, something that not all districts have.  Interest rates also have to be lower than the initial rate.  Or you could front load savings like MMSD did in 2009 when they refinanced, in that case (and maybe in Two Rivers), there were some real savings via lower rates, but these were weighted to the initial years and in fact payments increased for some future years.  Whatever is going on, it is not sustainable  — repeatedly refinancing is just kicking the can down the road —  and doesn’t make much sense as something to base a blanket recommendation for budgeting on.

One more piece in another story:

Case Elementary School was sold to St. Peter the Fisherman this past summer. St. Peter the Fisherman had been leasing the facility the past six years.

So I guess other districts should look to sell schools also.  Senseless.

What does make sense would be to make the number one priority and goal finding sustainable  means to invest in giving every child the Opportunities to Learn they need and deserve.

Thomas J. Mertz

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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: http://files.nsba.org/advocacy/Oppositionto2218.pdf

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.

TJM

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: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/ and http://saveourschoolswisconsin.wordpress.com/

Thomas J. Mertz

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Education, Taxes, and MMSD Board Goals

Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

I was struck by the relationship between two things in recent Wisconsin State Journal stories.  The first of these is the graph above illustrating the cuts of over 150  Special Education staff positions (from Matt DeFour’s report on the new MMSD Middle School Mental Health initiative).    The second was this quote from Board President James Howard in Defour’s story on greater than anticipated cuts in state aid to the Madison Metropolitan School District:

School Board President James Howard said the board’s goal has been to not raise property taxes and, “I think that’s still our position.”

The short version of my reaction is that if your goal is hold the line on taxes, then I guess you are just fine with cutting programs and services, even those that serve the most vulnerable as Special Education does.  I’m not OK with that prioritization and am not OK with a Board and Board President who are.  The longer version  — including an analysis of how the 2008 referendum fits with this — follows.

[Note, as I was finishing this Board Member Ed Hughes put up a post indicating that he is more open to a property tax increase than president Howard and offering readers an opportunity to weigh in via a pollu.  When you are done here, read that post and vote).

Where to start?  I’ll begin with the obvious truth there are things that MMSD schools should be doing, ways they could be helping students, but are not and that these things cost money.   As a consequence of inadequate funding (among other things), MMSD is failing provide appropriate educational opportunities and services  for some students and excellent opportunities and services for many.  In other words, budget cuts impact education.  If you don’t believe the above, you should probably stop reading now.

The cuts to Special Education staff are one example (note I was cognizant of the 2006 cross-categorical teacher drop due to a change in case load allocations for “Speech and Language Only” students, the cuts to SEAs are somewhat surprising to me).  It is also worth noting that the approved Preliminary 2011-12 Budget appears to cut a further $3,231,626 from Education Services, the department in charge of Special Education, ELL and more (this figure may have changed slightly due to amendments, I’m using the initial Budget because the “approved Preliminary….” isn’t on line).  If any of these cuts come from Special Education, the district may be in danger of losing Federal Funding due to the Maintenance of Effort requirements  of IDEA which as explained in this memo from DPI  do not recognize “savings from reduced staff benefits as exceptions.”

Special Education is just one area where more resources would help; there are many others.  It should also not be forgotten that this preliminary — no new taxes —  budget was balanced by cutting staff compensation, as  Board Member Ed Hughes has said “underpaying our most important employees… a false economy.”

Now on to Board Goals.  I looked at in vain at the statues governing Boards of Education, at the MMSD Policies, at the District Philosophy, at the Mission Statement, at the Strategic Plan for any reference that could support not raising property taxes as a goal superior to providing the best possible education for the students in their charge.

You can look too, you won’t find it.  What you will find is much that calls for the Board to (in the phrase from the Strategic Plan) “vigorously pursue the resources necessary to achieve our mission,” the mission being:

…to cultivate the potential in every student to thrive as a global citizen by inspiring a love of learning and civic engagement, by challenging and supporting every student to achieve academic excellence, and by embracing the full richness and diversity of our community.

The last couple of MMSD budgets have each left about $10 million in revenue authority unused; the approved Preliminary Budget leaves (I believe) about $9 million (again, no final preliminary is on line, so I’m estimating).  It would not have taken, and does not now take much vigor to access these resources.  It may take  a little courage.

I realize that much has changed in the last few years — widespread economic hardship, cuts in state aid by both Democratic and Republican state governments, much slower than anticipated growth in property values, , the opportunity to cut staff compensation under the threat of union busting, dramatic cuts to the revenue limit base  — but despite all of these changes, if you go back to the principles and the details of Partnership Plan used to sell the 2008 Operating Referendum (which passed overwhelmingly) I think you can find plenty of justification for increasing property taxes in order to achieve the mission of the district.  Maybe not to the fully allowed limit (maybe) , but certainly beyond the level the Board President has stated as a goal.

That referendum is the primary reason why even with the FitzWalker mandated 5.5% cut in allowed revenue, Madison has the ability to maintain and even expand opportunities.   In more ways than one, that’s what over 68% of the voters agreed to.  They did not vote to freeze property taxes, they voted to raise them.

The strongest Partnership Plan based case for using the entire $10 million in referendum granted authority this year and every year is that that plan anticipated only a three year total of $9 million in cuts from cost to continue budgets, a total that was about doubled in the combined actual budgets of the first two years.

To me that is compelling, but some Board Members and others will point out the plan anticipated higher state aid and growth in property values than have been realized, and that these factors — along with general economic conditions — justify cutting at a higher level,  I don’t agree, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to stipulate that rather than relying on the “cuts from cost-to-continue ” metric,  we should also look at the total property tax burden.

Looking at the total levy instead of the total cuts is one way to deal with the diminished state aid and the lack of growth in property wealth to produce a conservative estimate of the tax burden agreed to by voters who ratified the Partnership Plan .  However if you are going to elevate  property taxes over other considerations in this manner it is only right to fully account for changes in property taxes and that includes dealing with the School Levy Credits.

As explained by Andy Reschovsky, the Levy Credits are categorized by the state as school aid but in fact function as property tax relief misdirected toward wealthier districts and property owners.  Shifting the almost $900 million a year allocated to the Levy Credits into general state school aids is a centerpiece of State Superintendent Tony Evers Fair Funding for the Future proposal.

Since 2006 the Levy Credits has almost doubled.  For the most part this has been ignored by School Boards in their Levy and Budget deliberations.  I think that was because districts almost always taxed to the max under revenue limits, so there was little reason to look at how the Credits impacted the net taxes of property owners.  One place where this would have made sense was in the otherwise detailed discussions of referendum related tax increases, but  — despite my advice at the time — MMSD did not include the Levy Credits in their presentations for  2008 referendum.

Since 2009-10 MMSD has ceased taxing to the max and has begun making minimizing tax burdens the top or near top consideration, the “goal.”  That means that the Levy Credits need to be part of the discussion, because as Reshovsky explains MMSD taxpayers benefit greatly from the Credits:

Using Madison as an exam-ple, in 2009, the average gross school mill rate was 9.79. The city’s school levy credit allocation resulted in a 1.76 mill rate reduction. Tax bills were then calculated using the net school mill rate of 8.03. Thus, the School levy credit resulted in a $352 tax saving for the owner of property worth $200,000 (.00176 times $200,000), and a tax saving of $880 for the owner of a $500,000 property.

For the purposes of this comparison of the levies anticipated in the Partnership Plan and  the actual/preliminary levies for the period covering the 2009-10 through 2011-12 budgets,  what is most important is that while cutting general school aids for the years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Democrats increased the Levy Credits and that the Republicans in power have maintained these increases.  At the time voters approved the 2008 referendum, the Levy Credits for MMSD totaled 37,198,954.  For 2009-10 this increased to 40,934,795 and for 2010-11 they were 40,304,862.  I haven’t seen estimates for 2011-12, but the total funding for the Levy Credits is unchanged and it seems safe to assume that the share going to MMSD taxpayers will be about the same.

The table below uses  projected property tax totals from the Partnership Plan, the actual levies for the first two years and the levy from the approved preliminary budget for 2011-12.  To account for the Levy Credits  I’ve subtracted the Levy Credit increases over 2008 (3,735,841 for 2009-10 and 3,105,908 for 2010-11) from the levy totals (using the 2010-11 figure for 2011-12).

According to these figures,  MMSD could levy an additional $7,174,422 and still be within a  conservative interpretation of the tax increases the voters  approved with the 2008 referendum.  I think they should use at least this amount of their levy authority to advance their mission.

In the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum vote, I find no evidence that the community shares  Board President Howard’s stated goal to not raise property taxes and here and elsewhere I find much that supports reasonable tax increases.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Hypocrite of the Day — Sarah Archibald

I’ve written about Sarah Archibald before.  She joined the state payroll when Jim Doyle tapped her to head up Wisconsin’s misguided and failed Race to the Top application, a key element of which was rushed legislation opening the door to the misuse of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.  Now she is doing education policy for the FitzWalker gang as part of Senator Luther Olsen’s staff, busting unions, paving the way for  privatization via vouchers, enabling  charter school expansion, undermining local control, creating bigger class sizes in our public schools, eroding the opportunities to learn for most of the children of our state, and yes, further expanding the abuse of standardized test-based data to determine the conditions of employment for educators (via the pending SB 95 and AB 130).  You can read more about Archibald’s belief in the “need” to include “student test scores” in evaluating and determining compensation for teachers in this piece of Bradley Foundation funded pseudo scholarship.

We have a pretty good idea of what Dr. Archibald wants for your children and mine (a little more on that below), but what about her’s?  She sends her kids to Wingra School in Madison, where the tuition is $12,000 a year, the teacher student ratio is 12/1, the philosophy is “progressive,” and they don’t believe in tests, standardized or otherwise.  I’ll let Doctor Archibald explain in her own words:

…[W]hy we send our kids to Wingra school. At this school, teachers have the luxury of really recognizing and reinforcing each child. With no scripted curriculum and no standardized tests, teachers can focus on allowing the child to blossom and following the kids’ lead in terms of what they want to learn about. Who knows if they’ll really be prepared for high school or college, but they are held, and that counts for a lot.

I can’t help but close with this oft-quoted passage from John Dewey:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy ” (The School and Society, 1899).

Sarah Archibald is a wise parent who is working to destroy our democracy.   I think she’s earned the Hypocrite of the Day Award.

Thomas J. Mertz

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