Journal of Educational Controversy


Monday, December 10, 2012

Journal's Upcoming Issue on the School -to-Prison Pipeline will be the Topic of Hearing by the U.S. Senate

As our readers know, the next issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy will focus on the School-to-Prison Pipeline. We posed the following controversy in the issue:
The School to Prison Pipeline refers to a national trend in which school policies and practices are increasingly resulting in criminalizing students rather than educating them. Statistics indicate that the number of suspensions, expulsions, dropouts or “pushouts,” and juvenile justice confinements is growing. Moreover, there is a disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities and emotional problems. In this issue, we invite authors to examine the policy implications, the political ramifications, and the causes and possible solutions to this problem. Moreover, what are these policies teaching our children?
 We have just learned that Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, has announced he would hold a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline this Wednesday, December 12, 2012. The focus will be on the overuse of school discipline and juvenile court referrals. It will take place at 2:00pm (ET) in Room 226 at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

This may be the first Congressional hearing to investigate the growing increase in the number of students who are being funneled out of the public schools and into the juvenile justice system. Our upcoming issue of the journal will examine some of the possible causes and solutions to the problem and will include a video interview with former Washington State Supreme Court Justice, Bobbe Bridge, who started the Center for Children and Youth Justice, after leaving the Court.

We invite readers who attend the congressional hearing in Washington, DC to share their insights with us on the blog.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bill Ayers' Petition -- President Obama: Replace Arne Duncan with Linda Darling-Hammond

Editor: Here is a slightly different version of our post below about Bill Ayers.  In it, he asks followers to sign and forward a petition to President Obama.  In it he recommends that the President appoint Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of State.  The petition currently has 810 signatures. A link follows the post.

Argues Ayers:

It is time to set American education on that course, and a strong step in that direction would be appointing Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education. A teacher and recognized scholar/researcher for decades, Dr.Darling-Hammond will not be swayed by big money or political expediency or the latest fads. She will be independent, professional and principled. We can then return to the precious but fragile ideal that must power education in a democracy: Every human being is of incalculable value, and the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each.

Here is the full version:

President Obama: Replace Arne Duncan with Linda Darling-Hammond

By Bill Ayers

Dear Mr. President:  

You and Secretary Arne Duncan-endorsed in your efforts by Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and a host of reactionary politicians and pundits-now bear a major responsibility for a toxic agenda of "school reform."

The three most trumpeted and simultaneously most destructive aspects of the united "school reform" agenda are these:

1) turning over public assets and spaces to private management;

2) dismantling and opposing any independent, collective voice of teachers; and

3) reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score.

While there's absolutely no substantive proof that this approach improves schooling for children, it chugs along unfazed. Race to the Top is but one example of incentivizing bad behavior and backward ideas about education:

It's one state against another, this school against that one, and my second grade in fierce competition with the second grade across the hall.

Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons); you sent your kids to Lab, and so did your friend Rahm Emanuel. There students found small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits, and a minimum of time-out for standardized testing. They found, as well, a respected and unionized teacher corps, people who were committed to a life-long career in teaching and who were encouraged to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit (and who never would settle for being judged, assessed, rewarded, or punished based on student test scores).

In a vibrant democracy, whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Every child deserves the type of education your children receive.

It is time to set American education on that course, and a strong step in that direction would be appointing Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education. A teacher and recognized scholar/researcher for decades, Dr.

Darling-Hammond will not be swayed by big money or political expediency or the latest fads. She will be independent, professional and principled. We can then return to the precious but fragile ideal that must power education in a democracy: Every human being is of incalculable value, and the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each.

That's why I created a petition to President Barack Obama, which says:

"Mr. President: Prove your support for a deep and rich curriculum for all students regardless of circumstance or background. Fire Arne Duncan and appoint Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education. "

Will you sign my petition? Click here to add your name:

William Ayers

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bill Ayers’ Open Letter to President Obama

Editor: Readers will remember an article in an earlier issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy by Bill Ayers, entitled, “Singing in Dark Times.” The letter below has been circulating on the web with requests to interested readers to forward it on to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In his critique of the administration's direction for educational reform, Ayers points out three areas that have become particularly toxic and destructive for an education required for sustaining democratic life.

Writes Ayers:

The three most trumpeted and simultaneously most destructive aspects of the united “school reform” agenda are these: turning over public assets and spaces to private management; dismantling and opposing any independent, collective voice of teachers; and reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score.

 We thought our readers would be interested in reading Professor Ayers’ most recent post.

An Open Letter to President Obama from Bill Ayers

By William Ayers

Dear President Obama: Congratulations!

I’m sure this is a moment you want to savor, a time to take a deep breath, get some rest, hydrate, regain your balance, and take a long walk in the sunshine. It might be as well a good time to reflect, rethink, recharge, and perhaps reignite. I sincerely hope that it is, and I urge you to put education on your reflective agenda.

The landscape of “educational reform” is currently littered with rubble and ruin and wreckage on all sides. Sadly, your administration has contributed significantly to the mounting catastrophe. You’re not alone: The toxic materials have been assembled as a bipartisan endeavor over many years, and the efforts of the last several administrations are now organized into a coherent push mobilized and led by a merry band of billionaires including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, and Eli Broad.

Whether inept or clueless or malevolent—who’s to say?—these titans have worked relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, promoting, and, when all else fails, spreading around massive amounts of cash to promote their particular brand of school change as common sense. You and Secretary Arne Duncan—endorsed in your efforts by Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and a host of reactionary politicians and pundits—now bear a major responsibility for that agenda.

The three most trumpeted and simultaneously most destructive aspects of the united “school reform” agenda are these: turning over public assets and spaces to private management; dismantling and opposing any independent, collective voice of teachers; and reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. While there’s absolutely no substantive proof that this approach improves schooling for children, it chugs along unfazed—fact-free, faith-based reform at its core, resting firmly on rank ideology rather than any evidence whatsoever.

The three pillars of this agenda are nested in a seductive but wholly inaccurate metaphor: Education is a commodity like any other—a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screwdriver—that is bought and sold in the marketplace. Within this controlling metaphor the schoolhouse is assumed to be a business run by a CEO, with teachers as workers and students as the raw material bumping along the assembly line while information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads.

It’s rather easy to begin to think that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and “privatizing” a space that was once public, is a natural event. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” (winners and losers) becomes a rational proxy for learning; “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior turns out to be a stand-in for child development or justice; and a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on lawmakers, foundations, corporations, or high officials (they call it “accountability")—is logical and level-headed.

I urge you to resist these policies and reject the dominant metaphor as wrong in the sense of inaccurate as well as wrong in the sense of immoral.

Education is a fundamental human right, not a product. In a free society education is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being; it’s constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and, conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. Further, while schooling in every totalitarian society on earth foregrounds obedience and conformity, education in a democracy emphasizes initiative, courage, imagination, and entrepreneurship in order to encourage students to develop minds of their own.

When the aim of education and the sole measure of success is competitive, learning becomes exclusively selfish, and there is no obvious social motive to pursue it. People are turned against one another as every difference becomes a potential deficit. Getting ahead is the primary goal in such places, and mutual assistance, which can be so natural in other human affairs, is severely restricted or banned. It’s no wonder that cheating scandals are rampant in our country and fraudulent claims are commonplace.

Race to the Top is but one example of incentivizing bad behavior and backward ideas about education as the Secretary of Education begins to look and act like a program officer for some charity rather than the leading educator for all children: It’s one state against another, this school against that one, and my second grade in fierce competition with the second grade across the hall.

You have opposed privatizing social security, pointing out the terrible risks the market would impose on seniors if the voucher plan were ever adopted. And yet you’ve supported—in effect—putting the most endangered young people at risk through a similar scheme. We need to expand, deepen, and fortify the public space, especially for the most vulnerable, not turn it over to private managers. The current gold rush of for-profit colleges gobbling up student loans is but one cautionary tale.

You’ve said that you defend working people and their right to organize and yet you have publicly and noisily maligned teachers and their unions on several occasions. You need to consider that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and that good teaching conditions are good learning conditions. We can’t have the best learning conditions if teachers are forced away from the table, or if the teaching corps is reduced to a team of short-termers and school tourists.

You have declared your support for a deep and rich curriculum for all students regardless of circumstance or background, and yet your policies rely on a relentless regimen of standardized testing, and test scores as the sole measure of progress.

You should certainly pause and reconsider. What’s done is done, but you can demonstrate wisdom and true leadership if you pull back now and correct these dreadful mistakes.

In a vibrant democracy, whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons); you sent your kids to Lab, and so did your friend Rahm Emanuel. There students found small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits, and a minimum of time-out for standardized testing. They found, as well, a respected and unionized teacher corps, people who were committed to a life-long career in teaching and who were encouraged to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit (and who never would settle for being judged, assessed, rewarded, or punished based on student test scores).

Good enough for you, good enough for the privileged, then it must be good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere—a standard to be aspired to and worked toward. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of John Dewey who founded the school you chose for your daughters, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”


William Ayers

Friday, October 19, 2012

From Desegregation to “No Child Left Behind:” a New Memoir by a Civil Rights Fighter Who Made a Difference. James Meredith’s New Book, A Mission From God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.

September 30th marked the 50th anniversary of the historic desegregation of the University of Mississippi. James Meredith, the student whose courage made this milestone in the fight against segregation possible, has published a new book talking about his journey and challenging what he sees as misguided educational policies today. The book is entitled, Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America. We may publish a review of his book in a future issue of the journal, but readers may want to read the press release now.



On the Eve of 50th Anniversary of his Historic Desegregation of the University of Mississippi on September 30, James Meredith Urges Citizens to “Storm the Schools”

September 21, 2012: Civil rights giant James Meredith, author of the provocative, just-released book A MISSION FROM GOD: A MEMOIR AND CHALLENGE FOR AMERICA (Simon & Schuster), charged today that both President Obama and Governor Romney are contributing to the destruction of American K-through-8 public education by proposing failed or unproven policies, supporting the continued waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds on education, and neglecting America’s children, especially the poor.

“There is no real difference between the two candidates and parties when it comes to the most critical domestic issue of our age, public education,” Meredith says. “Both Obama and Romney are in favor of multi-billion-dollar boondoggles and money-grabs that have little or no evidence of widespread benefit to K-through-8 children or the community at large, like over-reliance on high-stakes standardised testing; over-reliance on charter schools and cyber-charters; and the funding and installation of staggering amounts of unproven computer products in schools.”

According to Meredith, “Education is much too important to be left to politicians. They have failed. They came up with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both of which are largely failures. It is time for parents, families and teachers to take back control, and to step up to their responsibilities to take charge of education.”

His solution? “Storm the schools,” says Meredith, echoing the challenge he issues in his book A MISSION FROM GOD, which has been compared by one reviewer to a work by Dostoyevsky and hailed by Publishers Weekly as “lively and compelling.” He says, “I call on every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community, especially those schools with disadvantaged students.” He also suggests that citizens flood the schools with offers to volunteer to read to young children, and flood every school board and political meeting to demand that politicians and bureaucrats justify, with concrete evidence, every proposal made and every dollar being spent on public education, line by line.

While Meredith does not endorse either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and does not endorse most individual education policy proposals, he is announcing a 4-point Manifesto to Rescue American Education, that calls for America to:

• Suspend billions of dollars of public spending on unproven high-stakes standardized testing and unproven computer products in schools, and redirect those and other necessary funds to;

• Support sharply boosting teacher quality, qualifications and pay, especially in the poorest neighborhoods,

• Expand early childhood education and community schools, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, and,

• Strengthen the back-to-basics fundamentals of K-8 education, including play-based learning for youngest students; add or restore history, civics, the arts, music and physical education to the core subjects of math, science and English; and provide proper nutrition, medical and social support services for poor children through the schools.

“The outrageous, unjust public shaming and scapegoating of teachers by politicians and self-appointed pundits must end, our problems are mostly not their fault,” says Meredith. “Teachers should be respected, revered, compensated, empowered, loved and supported to give our children the education they desperately need. And that will only happen when we, as a people, take back control of our schools.”

About James Meredith: Meredith’s one-man crusade to desegregate the University of Mississippi at Oxford exactly 50 years ago, on September 30, 1962, is considered one of the great turning points and triumphs of the civil rights era, and led the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to place Meredith at the top of his own list of heroes in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. In 1966, Meredith was shot while leading a “March Against Fear,” a campaign that helped open the floodgates of voter registration in the South.

Written with award-winning author William Doyle, A MISSION FROM GOD: A MEMOIR AND CHALLENGE FOR AMERICA is published to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the “Battle of Oxford” and reveals the inside story of James Meredith’s epic American journey and his challenge for Americans to save their education system.

Monday, September 3, 2012



VOL. 8 NO. 1 Fall 2013



Our journal published an article recently on the banning of the Mexican-American curriculum in Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District. The incident raises many larger questions about what knowledge is of most worth, whose perspective gains ascendency in the curriculum, and what public is represented in the public schools. Controversies have emerged not only over what should be included in specific areas like the literary canon, historical interpretations, science curriculum, etc., but also in the larger arena of ideological frameworks over what it means to be human, what it means to be an educated person, and what social values should frame a public education in a society that embeds a fundamental tension between its capitalist economic system and its democratic egalitarian ideals. Even the tension between the secular and the religious continues to defy easy answers in a society that values separation between church and state. As Warren Nord says about the typical study of economics, it assumes that “economics is a science, people are essentially self-interested utility-maximizers, the economic realm is one of competition for scarce resources, values are personal preferences and value judgments are matters of cost-benefit analysis.” (Warren A. Nord, “The Relevance of Religion to the Curriculum,” The School Administrator, January 1999.) In effect, the so-called secular study of economics makes a number of assumptions about human nature, society, and values. What is left out of this study of the economic domain of life is the theologian’s questions of social justice, stewardship, poverty and wealth, human dignity and the meaningfulness of work. To what degree do students understand or are even aware of these hidden assumptions in their study of economics and other subjects? To what degree should other perspectives be included? We invite authors to shed some light on these questions.



Authors can find the journal at:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What is Public about Public Education: Jim Strickland's Thoughts to the National League of Democratic Schools

Editor:  Jim Strickland has been a long-time believer in an education for sustaining democratic life.  He is also the former regional coordinator for the Western region of the National League of Democratic Schools and a special education teacher in Washington State.  Jim has written several posts for us in the past and also has written for Dick Clark's blog, Community and Education, that we talked about in the memorial to Dick below.  We welcome Jim's latest reflections on "Citizenship as Education," and thank him for his permission to reprint it here. Jim writes that it was a response to his reading of Benjamin Barber's Strong Democracy, and believes that "Barber's participatory understanding of democracy and citizenship provides a powerful context for our work in education."  The National League of Democratic Schools in which the journal participates has become richer because of the work of both Jim and Dick.

Citizenship as Education
Jim Strickland

The term “public education” can be understood in a couple of different ways. One common meaning is related to its funding source. Public education is education that is publicly funded, as in our public schools and other publicly financed educational programs.

Another meaning of public education, however, is related to its primary purpose. In this view, public education refers to our intentional efforts to create a public – that is, a body of citizens who have the inclination and the capacity to participate in the ongoing and responsible practice of self-government. This broader understanding of public education encompasses the work done by our public schools, but extends far beyond them to include the institutions and political, economic, and social structures of the larger community.

This kind of public education – citizenship education – is a community responsibility. And, as is the case with other types of learning, it is best learned by doing. In other words, the best way to become a true citizen is in the actual practice of citizenship. Citizenship is its own education. And to make this education possible, it is our job as a community to ensure that real opportunities for citizen participation are widely and continuously available, known to the community, and actively supported.

So what does the practice of citizenship look like? I like to think of citizenship as simply doing my part to make my community work. And in a democracy, that means participating at some level in the practice of self-government. Voting, yes, but much more than that. Democracy can be understood as a continuous process of mutual transformation. It is a respectful “give and take” that results in beneficial growth to all those involved.

And this process is driven by, more than anything else, ongoing and thoughtful dialogue. Yes, the foundation of democracy is the very human act of just talking with each other. It is through this never-ending public conversation that we come to understand each other, grapple with new ideas, enlarge our thinking, and ultimately solve problems and make decisions together. This kind of citizenship is the most transformative kind of education there is. You cannot emerge unchanged because continuous and responsible change is the name of the game.

But this kind of public education – citizenship education – doesn’t just happen all by itself. We have to intentionally create the forums for it to flourish. Here are a few suggestions to get us started. We could begin by:

1) Creating more opportunities for nonpartisan dialogue around issues that are important to us (this could include regular citizens’ forums and neighborhood assemblies).

2) Finding ways to integrate the practice of citizenship more seamlessly into our daily lives, even at the workplace (this could include an increase in workplace democracy and giving employees paid time off for participation in citizenship activities).

3) Raising expectations for citizenship by empowering citizen groups with real decision-making authority and promoting a culture of ownership.

4) Exploring new ways to increase participatory citizenship in our schools (this could include more participatory modes of school governance, regular civic action involving school-community partnerships, and making citizenship a primary measure of student success).

Citizenship, like democracy, is a way of living that stretches us to grow and brings out the best we can be. It is the common arena in which we define ourselves both as individuals and in terms of our relationships with others. Citizenship is how we hammer out a vision for community that works for us all – today.

But what works today may not work tomorrow, so this process can never stop. I want to live in a world where growth never stops, where learning never stops, where the human conversation never stops. And to me, that’s what public education is all about.

Monday, July 30, 2012

In Memory: Richard “Dick” Clark 1936-2012

I was saddened to hear of Dick Clark’s passing on July 6th. I saw Dick just last month at the conference of the National League of Democratic Schools in Seattle, a network of schools across the nation, started by John Goodlad, that has been a laboratory for democratic practices. The Journal of Educational Controversy and its partner school in the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal have been part of the movement since 2004 and we have written about it many times on this blog.

Dick shared his thoughts along with John Goodlad and stayed for some two hours. His voice was strong and his arguments compelling even while his body was weak. He fought the good fight right to the end and will be missed. I have a link on my blog to the blog, Community and Education, that he had been writing over the years as well as a special link to "Washington Happenings" where he followed the significant events in our state. It was very helpful for my readers. Dick believed in the public purposes of education and kept arguing for a democratic vision right to the end. We hope to continue his concerns in the media and in the public debate. Indeed, Dick’s call for scholars to advance the Agenda for Democracy is echoed in our journal’s mission to bring scholars in their capacity as public intellectuals into conversation with the public and its legislators.

Dick’s last post on his blog was an inspiring message to those committed to the League’s Agenda for Democracy. We reprint it here so Dick’s voice will continue through our readers.

Make AED [Agenda for Democracy] Scholars an Organizing Center

By Dick Clark

Can the AED Scholars Become an Organizing Center?

The Institute works to advance the Agenda for Education in a Democracy. This Agenda consists of a four-part mission, a set of strategies to achieve that mission, and conditions that are necessary to carry out the strategies.
The agenda is mission driven and research based. It seeks to:
• Foster in the nation's young the skills, attitudes, and knowledge necessary for effective participation in a social and political democracy.

• Ensure that all youths have access to those understandings and skills required for satisfying and responsible lives regardless of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or birth language.

• Develop and provide continuing support to educators who nurture the learning and well being of every student.

• Ensure that educators are competent and committed to serving as stewards of their schools.
To accomplish this mission, schools and universities seek simultaneous renewal of schools and the education of educators.  They do so by putting in place the conditions necessary to renewing the nation's schools and its democracy.
There is little doubt about the commitment to the Agenda for Education in a Democracy among the AED scholars. I suspect we live out that commitment everyday and in every aspect of our work. The question before us, as I understand it, is not about commitment to the work of furthering the Agenda, but about whether or not we, as a group of scholars, want to be an organizing center for its promotion. Surely we are all enmeshed in a web of groups and institutions that occupy all of our waking hours (and some of our sleeping hours as well). We endeavor to exercise responsible influence on the groups and institutions within our spheres.

For me thus far, belonging to AED Scholars has been an honor. I feel privileged to be in the company of so many gifted, ethical and like-minded educators. It gives me some measure of comfort to know that others are doing the work to which we have a collective commitment. However, I do not feel as though I have been a very good steward of the agenda beyond my own personal actions day to day. That is to say, I feel that I have promoted democratic ideals whenever and wherever possible, but have not deliberately or publically connected them to AED. Very few people who have read my scholarship or with whom I interact day to day understand that my behavior is motivated by AED. Perhaps one of the best things we can do as AED scholars is make our commitment more public. It would not be a small thing to agree to use a common symbol of our work that acknowledges our group, one that links us to the agenda and to one another.

How are linked? What kind of relationships exist among the AED scholars? Thus far we have been primarily a community of ideals, not so much a community of place or even a discourse community (in the sense that we share scholarship on a regular basis). The AED scholars may not feel that it’s necessary to draw together as yet another freestanding entity. Do we wish to add to the current constellation of groups and institutions to which we belong? I would argue that we do need to draw together, that we do need to be an organizing center and that we do need to become a strong community of mind. We need to be so simply because our mission is to further the agenda. I once asked John [Goodlad] what he meant when he used this phrase, for he uses it quite often. What does it mean to further the Agenda? Does it mean further develop the agenda or does it mean to better disseminate the Agenda? John was pretty clear that he meant the latter. If that is so, it implies enlisting others to share our values and see the world, and what is important in it, as we do. If you follow that reasoning, then the AED Scholars’ role would be to formulate an identity and expand our influence. We would go as many other organizations have gone – increase our membership, accumulate resources, undertake “missionary” work, mentor new scholars into this group, become better known. Surely we know how to do this. The question is, do we have the will?

I can think of six strategies for pulling a group such as ours together: 1. Write a text in which we each take responsibility for a section or chapter. 2. Convene together to present papers and discuss ways to support one another. 3. Make presentations about aspects of the agenda at state and national meetings. 4. Create a virtual community using all of the tools available to us on the World Wide Web. 5. Band together with other groups and organizations that share our values. 6. Construct a common syllabus and see that it gets institutionalized in our college or university.

I am sorry that I do not have more imaginative suggestions. The key in making this group more viable is for those of us involved to make a conscious pledge to devote a portion of every week/month/year to furthering the agenda through collaborating together. I look forward to seeing other ideas and suggestions.

Posted by Dick Clark at 11:54 AM June 23, 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

“Wreaking Havoc in Public Education”-- and Undermining our Democracy

 Editor:  In our current issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy, Deborah Meier raised some important questions about the educational reform movement that has dominated our national discourse in her article, “Is This What Democracy Looks Like.”  Below is another author who looks critically at the buying and selling of school reform in our nation.  We thank Dissent Magazine for giving us permission to reprint this timely article for our readers.  We don’t usually put up such long posts on our blog, but because we believe it is important to understand the complexities on how money is being used to undermine our democracy, we are reprinting the article in its entirety.

Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform
By Joanne Barkan

Dissent Magazine, Spring 2012

If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions.

Devolution of a Movement

For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher’s worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called “advocacy”) for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw “reform-think” dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.

Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers—even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates—see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers’ unions’ political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources—staff and money—into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.

Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: “We’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It’s about money, money, money” (Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*

* The ed reform movement comprises a large network of nonprofit organizations and consultancies whose funding comes mostly from private foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—with assets six times larger than Ford, the next largest foundation in the United States—dominates the movement. To give some sense of the interconnections and the scope of the colossal foundation, I note in parentheses the amount of money various groups have received from Gates.

The Great Political Opening

The Obama administration created the perfect opening for the ed reformers’ political strategy. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that in order to win federal funds in the 2010 Race to the Top contest, applicant states would have to pledge to abolish limits on charter schools, legislate teacher and principal evaluations based in part on students’ standardized test scores, and fully implement statewide data-collection systems. The mandates spurred money-starved states to propose controversial new education laws. Candidates running for office—from state senator to local school board member—took sides. The ed reform organizations plunged into both legislative and candidate battles, ratcheting up the campaign spending and rhetoric, casting each contest as a battle for the future of the nation through public school reform (tales of the campaigns further on).

The movement’s market-modeled reforms have so far produced more failures than successes. Study after study throws into question the value of most charter schools, incessant standardized testing, and grading teachers or closing schools based on student test scores. The ed reformers’ drive to get new laws passed aggravates matters by making bad policy mandatory and more widespread. It is mindless micromanaging gone amuck.

Take the case of Tennessee, where 35 percent of every teacher’s evaluation is now based on standardized test scores. On November 6, 2011, the New York Times reported that no tests exist for over half the subjects and grades, including kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, art, music, and vocational training. So state officials ruled that a school’s average scores for another subject and grade will be used for teachers without student scores. For example, fifth-grade writing scores will be plugged into, say, a first-grade teacher’s evaluation. In addition, teachers can choose the plug-in subject themselves for 15 percent of the 35 percent. This means they have to bet on which classes will produce the highest scores. A travesty? Not for the ever-ready boosters of the ed reform movement, including the New York Times editorial page. The Times offered this judgment on November 11: “…political forces [in Tennessee] are now talking about delaying the use of these evaluations. State lawmakers and education officials must resist any backsliding.” Anything goes as long as it’s stamped “ed reform.”

A summary critique of the reform strategy comes from Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011) and executive editor of Education Next (sponsored in part by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, $4.2 million from Gates, 2003-2009). Hess swears allegiance to market-based reforms but often criticizes the quality of his allies’ actual work. This is from his November 16, 2011 blog post on Education Week ($4.6 million from Gates, 2005-2009):

By turning school reform into a moral crusade, in which one either is, to quote our last President, “with us or against us,” would-be reformers wind up planting their flag atop all kinds of half-baked or ill-conceived proposals....Would-be reformers insist that overshooting the mark with half-baked proposals is actually a strategy, because that's how they'll cow the unions and change the culture of schooling. Indeed, they think concerns about program design are quaint evidence of naiveté.
Chipping Away at Democracy

Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (January 2010) and a related federal appeals court ruling in (March 2010) created loopholes for nonprofit organizations that effectively abolish all limits on campaign contributions. Ed reformers exploit the new legal framework exactly like other political operatives. This has two marked consequences. First is the fate of the original deal established by Congress—tax-exempt status in exchange for staying away from politics while serving some public good. The deal was eroded before Citizens United; now it has collapsed. In the world of ed reform, the political strategy makes a mockery of the tax-exempt privilege of the foundations and nonprofit groups involved. Second, most ed reformers have benefitted from branding themselves as progressives or “lifelong Democrats” (“I love labor unions—just not teachers’ unions”). This has given them credibility with liberals who, like most voters, haven’t paid close attention to the content and results of the ed reforms. The labeling has always been a ruse, but the politicking reformers have obliterated dividing lines: they work in local and state campaigns alongside corporate free-marketers and right-wing social conservatives who’ve long and openly supported privatizing public education, ending social programs, and eviscerating labor unions. In practice, they are one team.

Some funders and their tax-exempt grantees have hesitated to get more involved in politics. On occasion the reluctance has been cultural: they’ve always shied away from public debates on government policy and advocacy in general. More often it’s fear of jeopardizing their tax status. According to IRS regulations

• private foundations—a type of 501(c)3 organization—cannot lobby (defined as trying to influence legislation); they cannot campaign (defined as supporting or criticizing a candidate for public office); they can, however, “educate” anyone, including lawmakers, on any issue;

• most of the recipients of foundation money for ed reform are nonprofit groups with a different 501(c)3 status; they can do a specified amount of lobbying but no campaigning for candidates.

Here is the loophole: this second type of 501(c)3 can set up affiliated groups that do lobby and campaign. It can set up the following:

• political action committees (PACs), which have limits on the size of contributions accepted

• Independent Expenditure Committees (super PACs), which can accept unlimited contributions but cannot “coordinate” work with a candidate or party (an almost meaningless restriction)

• 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, such as the AARP and NAACP, which can accept unlimited  contributions as long as political activity is not their “primary” activity (another weak restriction)

• 527 organizations that advocate only for issues, not candidates, and can accept unlimited contributions (the line separating issues from candidates is fuzzy)
Pro-politicking ed reformers routinely set up a full array of such groups and solicit contributions for each. In this way, they can collect unlimited funds from many donors for different purposes. Having mastered the nitty-gritty of political money, these reformers have been trying to convince their hesitant colleagues to join in and pony up.

Wary of Politics? Get Over It

On May 12, 2010, six reform leaders made their pitch to a roomful of funders, consultants, and staffers of nonprofits at the annual “summit” of the New Schools Venture Fund. The panel was called “Political Savvy: Guidebook for a New Landscape.” Speakers included executives from Green Dot Public [charter] Schools (Gates, $9.7 million, 2006-2007), Bellwether Education Partners (Gates, $951,800 in 2011), Hope Street Group (Gates, $875,000 in 2008-2009), Stand for Children (as noted above, $5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011), Democrats for Education Reform (a PAC), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (one of the largest ed reform funders, nonetheless a Gates grantee, $3.6 million, 2010).

Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman—who has turned his nonprofit into a political machine with prodigious fundraising capability and offices in eleven states—articulated the afternoon’s main themes: “We’re not using money for political purposes almost at all in this movement. If one percent of the money that’s going into charter schools went into politics and elections in the support of education reform, we would end up with way more progress for the movement.” Later, he exhorted, “And if you search your heart and you feel uncomfortable using certain tools, get over it.” He also addressed the legal issue: “It really needs to be ‘by any means necessary,’ and you can do a lot legally. What you can’t do legally in terms of electioneering, that’s where partnerships come in.” Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (another robust political outfit with affiliates around the country), offered more specific advice: “Find more creative lawyers. We need them [ed reform nonprofits] to fire all of their lawyers that tell them ‘no’ all the time, if they have traditional 501(c)3 lawyers….”

Another of Williams’s comments reveals what is so misguided about this brand of education reform: “I think charter schools should be paying advocacy organizations for their advocacy work out of their per pupil dollars. If you think of running a school as running a business, any sound business is going to allocate right off the bat a certain percentage of their funding towards lobbying, advocacy work.”

But why think of running a school as running a business? Striving for efficiency is one thing—a good thing in many human endeavors, including school administration. But the analogy doesn’t hold beyond that: a school’s “bottom line” is not measured in dollars of profit; it shouldn’t waste resources on winning “market share” away from other schools. And why should charter schools pay for advocacy out of per-pupil dollars? Those are taxpayer dollars meant for those children’s education; the students “carry” those dollars away from a regular public school and give them to a charter school.

Williams’s position is self-serving: the per-pupil “fee” for advocacy would go to him and others among the multitude of salaried ed reform advocates. This problem of self-interest goes far beyond dunning kids for advocacy dollars. The ed reform movement has turned itself into an industry—an industry made up of scores of nonprofit groups of every size that operate locally, statewide, and nationally. They employ hundreds of people, many at high salaries (Williams’s 2010 salary was over $265,000); they rake in money from private foundations, wealthy individuals, and government. (As critics note, George Bush’s signature ed reform program, No Child Left Behind, quickly became No Consultant Left Behind.) The nonprofit ed reform industry has a growth model: the more of its agenda that becomes law, the greater the demand for personnel to design, implement, study, and revise government mandated programs. To opponents, this looks like a racket. For ed reformers, it’s only, and always, about “helping children.”

It Takes a Bundle: The New School Board

In one model of democracy, local school board elections would be genuinely local. With a few hundred dollars, a stack of lawn signs, time to ring doorbells, and one or two endorsements, you could win a position of importance in your community: a say in how children would be educated and how a sizable amount of public money would be spent. In the real world until recently, only teachers unions and the Christian Right paid much attention to these elections (the Christian Right recognized their importance as a political stepping stone some thirty-five years ago); few citizens bothered to vote. Now the ed reformers have jumped in, turning school board races into battles requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars per candidate and outside operatives. This sabotages both rootedness in the community and access. A potential forum for grassroots democracy is lost.

Consider the November 1, 2011 school board race in Denver. Three candidates ran as a “reform slate” for the three available seats on the seven-member board. Colorado doesn’t limit contributions in school board elections, so money from the ed reform movement and corporate CEOs poured in.

According to the final tallies posted on Colorado’s Campaign Finance Disclosure website, the reform slate took in $633,807 (an average of $211,269 per candidate). Just six donors—including executives in the oil, health-care, construction, and financial industries—accounted for $293,000 of the total. One of them, Strata Capital president Henry Gordon, told the Colorado Statesman (October 17, 2011) that he wasn’t familiar with the candidates when he gave the slate $75,000 but simply complied with the request of another major donor. The market approach to ed reform appeals to business leaders in general. Depending on their industry, some of them also stand to gain from reform-generated contracts.

STAND FOR Children (headquartered in Portland, Oregon) gave the reform slate $88,511 in “non-monetary” contributions of staff support and canvassing services. When an outside organization hires and pays for staff and vote solicitors and then “donates” their work to a candidate, the work looks like grassroots organizing but isn’t. It is “astroturfing”—a term the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is believed to have coined in 1985. Astroturfing is political activity designed to appear unsolicited, autonomous, and community-rooted without actually being so.

Astroturfing is the modus operandi of the ed reform movement. Contributions of staff and services skyrocketed in Denver in 2011. Two years earlier, for example, the candidate who is now the pro-reform school board president received just $310 in non-monetary contributions. In 2011, in addition to the $88,511 from Stand for Children, the reform slate took in $34,231 in mostly non-monetary contributions from a 501(c)4 group called Great Schools for Great Kids (Education News Colorado, December 2, 2011). The original source of this money isn’t clear—501(c)4s are not required to disclose donors. But the record shows that Great Schools for Great Kids transferred money to a super PAC that has the same registered agent and office suite as a Stand for Children affiliate. The money sloshes around.

The six other candidates in the nonpartisan race raised a total of $212,973 (an average of $35,495 per candidate). This, too, seems like a lot of money for a school board race, and yet, on a per candidate basis, the reform slate took in six times as much money as opponents did. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed two candidates. One of them received $71,240 from the union in monetary and non-monetary donations; the other received $40,720. According to the Denver Post (December 2, 2011), the union spent another $86,000 through a committee called Delta 4.0 on mailers to advocate for the two candidates. Labor unions [501(c)5s in the IRS code] have tax exempt status, as do business associations and political campaign organizations. Unlike ed reformers backed by private funders, however, the teachers’ unions are mass organizations with established local affiliates and elected leaders accountable to dues-paying members. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, teachers unions are tied to schools, students, parents, and communities through their members.

Two of the three Denver reform candidates won; the third lost by only 142 votes to the union-endorsed incumbent. The deluge of money certainly helped the reformers retain their four-to-three majority on the board. Equally important, the ed reform operation reached a pivotal goal: to eclipse the longstanding power of the teachers’ unions in the political arena. The expense and acrimony of the race prompted a Democratic state representative to re-propose spending limits. Unfortunately, after Citizens United, limits can end up funneling even more money into the web of political committees, where it’s harder to track and where individual donors can remain anonymous.

Denver wasn’t the only absurdly expensive school board race in 2011. For other examples, click here.

The Company They Keep

Ed reformers liven up their websites with photographs of happy-looking school children, many of them minorities: the kids are busy at work or smiling into the camera. Meanwhile, their self-appointed benefactors ally with politicians who are slashing school budgets, cutting social services and benefits, gutting jobs programs, undercutting health-care reform, pummeling public sector unions, and passing laws that make it harder for the children’s parents to vote. The disconnect between what ed reformers claim to be doing for low-income children and what they actually bring about boggles the mind.

The poster child for this moral disconnect is former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor and ed reform celebrity Michelle Rhee. Rhee resigned her D.C. post in October 2010 after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed in his reelection bid. Within weeks, Rhee had set up a 501(c)4 advocacy organization called StudentsFirst; she announced a five-year fundraising goal of $1 billion. Rhee explained the purpose of her project this way (Daily Beast/Newsweek, December 6, 2010):

When you think about how things happen in our country—how laws get passed or policies are made—they happen through the exertion of influence. From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change. Education is no different.
Rhee had a hectic first year. She started 2011 with gigs as ed reform policy advisor to three conservative Republican governors: Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Ohio’s John Kasich. Walker and Kasich provoked mass protests in their respective states by pushing through laws that rolled back not only the salaries and pensions of public sector workers (including teachers) but also their union rights. Rhee came under fire for helping to shape the teacher-related provisions of the laws. She tried to wash her hands of the matter by saying that she didn’t work on collective bargaining issues and didn’t endorse everything in the laws. But during a March 5, 2011 interview on Fox News, she asserted that unions “don’t have a place in getting involved in policies, and so I think that the move to try to limit what they bargain over is an incredibly important one.”

NO ONE knows how much money Rhee has raised so far or from whom: at this writing, the tax returns haven’t been filed, and she keeps her donors anonymous (although Rupert Murdoch is rumored to have given $50 million). Regardless, Rhee made a splashy debut as a high-rolling lobbyist. Her lobbying entity in Michigan, called United for Children Advocacy DBA StudentsFirst, spent $951,018 from January through July 2011 to influence the content of ed reform legislation. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, this made Rhee the biggest spending lobbyist in the state. She accounted for nearly half of the 11.6 percent increase in total lobbying spending compared to the same period in 2010. The state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, ranked sixth, spending $324,197.

Rhee also set up a super PAC in Michigan called Parents and Teachers for Putting Students First. It contributed $73,000 of its $155,000 bankroll to oppose the recall of Paul Scott, Republican chair of the state House Education Committee. Scott voted to cut K-12 spending while advancing ed reform bills. According to the Flint Journal (January 1, 2012), the Michigan Education Association contributed $140,000 to support the recall. Scott raised almost double that amount. Rhee’s major allies in this battle included the right-wing billionaire couple Dick and Betsy DeVos (his father co-founded Amway). The DeVos family has funded education privatization efforts around the country since 1990; they are among the biggest promoters of vouchers (per-pupil public funds that students can withdraw from the public system and use to pay for private schools, including religious schools); they also fund Christian Right schools. The recall effort succeeded by 197 votes.

In New Jersey, Rhee connected with two hedge-fund managers—David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican. The duo had recently joined the club of no-expertise-in-education billionaires dedicated to changing public schools. In March 2011, Tepper and Fournier launched a 501(c)4 called Better Education for Kids, Inc., and a super PAC called Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc. During the summer of 2011, the super PAC spent about $1 million on TV and radio commercials to promote Republican Governor Chris Christie’s ed reform program. In the fall, the super PAC gave $400,000 to support four pro-reform candidates for state Assembly: two, both Democrats, won; the two Republicans lost. Since then, the 501(c)4 has been offering New Jersey teachers $100 gift certificates to participate in private meetings about teacher evaluations. Tepper and Fournier’s super PAC and 501(c)4, it turns out, constitute the New Jersey branch of Rhee’s StudentsFirst. The ed reform network expands while remaining knit together by money and the strength of the moral crusade.

Jammed Down Their Throats: An Inside Story

Hubris is a core characteristic of today’s ed reformers. Of necessity, it informs their politicking. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the ed-world scandal that Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman created (his name reappears because he’s a prime mover of the political strategy). At a session of the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28, 2011, Edelman told his story of how the Illinois chapter of Stand, under his direction, shaped the state’s education reform bill and helped get it through the legislature. A video of Edelman’s presentation went viral on the Web, causing great embarrassment for Illinois lawmakers and teachers’ unions. They promptly denounced him and tried to correct the record. Edelman made a public apology, and Stand’s Illinois chapter appointed a new, if nominal, director. Still, Edelman’s account is extremely useful for understanding the attitude and style of ed reformers.

The Illinois law, which the governor signed on June 13, 2011, makes it easier to fire tenured teachers and revoke certification, eliminates seniority as the top consideration in layoffs, bases teacher evaluations on to-be-finalized measures of student performance, gives Chicago’s school administrators the unilateral power to lengthen the school day and year, and makes a strike by Chicago’s teachers nearly impossible.

Maneuvering for the law began with the 2010 elections to the state legislature. Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House for twenty-seven years, was running again. Edelman had raised more than $3.5 million for Stand’s Illinois war chest, mostly from Chicago’s wealthiest families, Republicans as well as Democrats. Since the substance of the story is in Edelman’s telling, here are excerpts from his talk (for the complete video, click here):

…So our analysis was he’s [Madigan] still going to be in power, and as such the raw politics were that we should tilt toward him, and so we interviewed thirty-six candidates in targeted races.…I’m being quite blunt here. The individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan. The press never picked up on it. We endorsed nine individuals, and six of them were Democrats, three Republicans….

…That was really a show of—indication to him that we could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That was the point. Luckily, it never got covered that way. That wouldn’t have worked well in Illinois. Madigan is not particularly well liked.

[Stand for Children, which gave $610,000 to its endorsed candidates, was one of the biggest contributors in the election.]…After the election, we went back to Madigan…and I confirmed the support [for Stand’s legislative proposal]….The next day he created an Education Reform Commission, and his political director called to ask for our suggestions who should be on it….In addition, we hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We raised $3 million for our political action committee. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. And I can tell you, there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.

…And so over the course of three months, with Advance Illinois [another ed reform group, $1.8 million from Gates in 2008] taking the negotiating lead…and Advance and Stand working in lockstep…they [the union negotiators] essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed.

…We fully expected [on the collective bargaining issues] that our collaborative problem-solving of three months would end, and we would have an impasse and go to war, and we were prepared. We had money raised for radio ads, and our lobbyists were ready. Well, to our surprise, and with [Chicago’s newly elected mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes, we were able to split the IEA [Illinois Education Association, a statewide union] from the Chicago Teachers Union.

…So the Senate backed it [the bill] 59 to zero, and then the Chicago Teachers Union leader started getting pushback from her membership for a deal that really, probably, wasn’t from their perspective strategic. She backed off for a little while, but the die had been cast. She had publicly been supportive. So we did some face-saving technical fixes in a separate bill, but the House approved it 112 to one.

… We’ve been happy to dole out plenty of credit, and now it makes it hard for folks leading unions in other states to say these types of reforms are terrible because their colleagues in Illinois just said these are great. So our hope and our expectation is to use this as a catalyst to very quickly make similar changes in other very entrenched states.

Astroturf—Says Who?

Jonah Edelman’s exploits offended not only Illinois legislators and unionists but also African American clergy in Chicago. posted an account by David A. Love on July 29, 2011 (available here):

Edelman attended a community meeting of black Chicago clergy with what observers have called a "slick dog and pony show."…According to Rev. Robin Hood, executive director of Clergy Committed to Community, SFC [Stand] wasn't the least bit interested in the concerns of the black community. "They were interested in getting people to see [the pro-charter film] Waiting for Superman....I found they were anti-union when we met with Stand for Children. It was all about money.”…Although SFC spread around a lot of money in Chicago communities, Rev. Hood emphasized that not one of the pastors in his group would take any of it.
The Edelman Affair is a sorry tale, not only because Jonah is the son of civil-rights leader Marian Wright Edelman and poverty analyst Peter Edelman, but also because Stand started out as an authentic grassroots organization in Oregon. When the scandal broke, longtime activists who had quit or become inactive “spoke out” online. Their reports are remarkably similar. The following is from an open letter to Edelman from Tom Olson, a decade-long volunteer and local leader, posted on the Parents Across America website on July 22, 2011. Olson and his wife had cancelled their sustaining memberships fifteen months earlier:

[I]n 2009, a number of us began to observe a serious erosion of your commitment to true grassroots operations....One of the “reforms” you and your staff began to tout was a call for legislation to create more “flexibility” for schools. This was obviously a thinly disguised attempt to erode negotiated teacher contract agreements and to create more charter schools. It was clearly modeled after some Colorado legislation you had pushed as you shifted to demanding attention to a national agenda supported mostly by corporate and Wall Street millionaires.
Dropping grassroots activism in favor of the ed reformers’ top-down strategy put Stand in sync with the rest of the movement. Ed reformers rarely concede, let alone lament, that they deal mostly in astroturf paid for by wealthy whites. So a frank assessment by Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, merits attention. In 2010 CER received $275,000 from Gates to launch the Media Bullpen, a baseball-themed website that rates education reporting according to reform criteria. (I gladly disclose that my article in Dissent, Winter 2011, “Got Dough: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools,” received a “strike out,” the lowest rating.) Allen posted the following online on December 19, 2011:

The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us. As a movement (and I've seen this first-hand for more than twenty years), we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting....Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan [flagship branch of 50CAN, $2.4 million from Gates in 2011], nor Stand, nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it....It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress

A strong democracy requires a public education system, one that is excellent throughout and open to all. The United States failed even to aim for this standard until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in schools. Since then, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (which directed federal funds to low-income schools), the nation has made progress toward access and excellence. Too slowly, of course, but progress nonetheless (see Richard Rothstein’s March 8, 2011 analysis for the Economic Policy Institute). Ed reformers ignore the data, claiming that poor and minority children are no better educated now than thirty or forty years ago. In fact, progress has slowed only in the last decade, since No Child Left Behind was implemented and the reform agenda gained traction. Other factors may play a role, but the ed reformers certainly haven’t improved progress.

The line of battle for the future of public education is clear. Allied on one side are free-market zealots in the business community, pro-voucher social conservatives, and this peculiar breed of reformers whose political movers are often wealthy, private-school educated, white, male, and under the age of fifty. They are the junior plutocracy, strivers whose do-good goal twenty years ago would have been a seat on the board of the municipal art museum. They are typically clueless about public education. On the other side are public school students, their families, their teachers, and believers in the link between democracy and public education. The first side has money, powerful political connections, and an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations with paid staff. The other side has this: the ability to become a true grassroots movement. This looks like an unequal contest. But with sustained effort, citizen activists at the grassroots can trump hired guns on astroturf.


The 1 Percent for School Board

Louisiana: The usually low-key elections for state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education cost well over $1 million in the fall of 2011. According to state campaign finance data, a pro-reform funding group called the Alliance for Better Classrooms took in more than $750,000—40 percent of it from construction mogul Lane Grisby and family members ($200,000) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trust ($100,000). The state’s most important business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, gave pro-reform candidates at least $250,000, according to Stateline, a news service sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Gates, $1.4 million to the Pew Research Center, 2011). The pro-reformers won six of the seven races.

Wake County, NC: The fall 2011 school board elections were the most expensive in the county’s history, costing more than $500,000, according to an early tally by the News & Observer website (November 8, 2011). At stake was a nationally acclaimed program that uses busing to achieve economic—and thereby racial—diversity. In 2009 multimillionaire conservative Art Pope (profiled in the New Yorker, October 10, 2011) spent heavily to get a Republican majority elected that would dismantle the program. The board promptly devised a plan to do that. The backlash against Pope, his allies, and the board produced a Democratic sweep of the five open seats in 2011. This vote for school integration made news around the country.

Correction: The original version of this article stated, “Three candidates ran as a ‘reform slate’ for the three open seats on the seven-member board.” Three candidates did run on a “reform slate,” however only two of the seats were open; the other was contested by an incumbent.

About the Author:
Joanne Barkan is a writer who lives in Manhattan and Truro, Massachusetts. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago where she attended public elementary and high schools.

For other articles by the author of interest to our readers, go to:

Editor: There are considerable numbers of links in this article.  Go to the original article at Dissent to connect with the links.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Arkansas School Choice Law Found Unconstitutional

Readers will remember our 2007 journal’s special issue on the U.S. Supreme Court decision, PICS v Seattle School District, when the High Court struck down Seattle’s policies to use race as a factor in public school admissions. Seattle had a long history of attempts to integrate its public schools without (or ahead of) a mandate of a court order, attempts that were constantly challenged by citizen initiatives. Its final attempt to use race as a tiebreaker when enrollment to a desired school choice was filled was found unconstitutional in the 2007 High Court decision.

Recently, a Federal Court struck down an Arkansas school choice law that reflects the reasoning of the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision. Unlike Seattle, however, the state of Arkansas had a long history of court orders for desegregation and was concerned about preserving its desegregation efforts.

According to an Associated Press release on June 8th, U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson found the provision of the law dealing with race violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and wrote in his decision:
The State must employ a more nuanced, individualized evaluation of school and student needs, which, while they may include race as one component, may not base enrollment or transfer options solely on race.
Because the provision could not be separated from the rest of the law, the court struck down the entire school choice law.  The decision in Teague v. Arkansas Board of Education came down on June 8th.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum -- Think Sheet Responses

At the beginning of last week’s 14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum (panel topic: “The Education and Schools Our Children Deserve”) at the Center for Education, Equity, and Diversity, we (i.e., the forum organizers) distributed a brief question sheet that asked each audience member to “list three characteristics that describe an education and school our children deserve.” Then, after the forum was over, we asked the audience to take a moment to write down any changes and revisions that had taken place in their thinking. We then compiled and analyzed their responses, which I will now summarize and discuss here.

By far the most commonly cited characteristic of desirable education was a sense of equality and inclusivity, with an ideal educational institution being one that provides guidance and quality education to students of all cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Over 75 percent of the audience members who turned in their question sheets cited this as being particularly important. This demonstrates both the abiding concerns of the forum-goers in general, and the fact that issues of educational equity remain woefully problematic: obviously if instances of severe inequality did not exist on a large scale, it probably would not have loomed sufficiently large in the respondents’ minds to become the common touchstone among their responses.

Also present in many people’s answers was the notion that schools should provide a sort of safe haven for students: a safe, comfortable, healthy learning environment where no one should feel threatened or uncomfortable. The primacy of a “whole child” approach to teaching, the appointment of knowledgeable, well-rounded, enthusiastic teachers, and a pedagogical focus on inculcating a love of learning in children also came up quite frequently.

Almost everything else that people mentioned—teacher consistency, caring relationships, diverse teaching styles to accommodate different ways of learning, instruction in critical thinking—more or less fell under subheadings of the common elements discussed above. One respondent facetiously suggested that the ideal school would have a “state-of-the-art detention hall where students are held in place with magnets” (obviously a quote from The Simpsons), but by and large the responses painted a portrait of the ideal school as an inclusive, holistic space of multicultural learning.

Meanwhile, the post-forum part of the question sheet, as I mentioned, asked audience members to discuss changes and refinements that had occurred in their thinking as a result of the panel. Many people cited an increased consciousness of the importance of relationships—between teachers and students, students and other students, teachers and the larger community, and so on—as their primary take-away from the forum. Several of them cited the video Vale Hartley showed of her class meeting at the Whatcom Day Academy as being particularly enlightening in that regard. The overall importance of the “humane aspect of teaching,” to use one respondent’s words, was definitely the throughline of the various post-forum responses.

Likewise, a large number of respondents asserted that their opinions were not changed so much as augmented as a result of the panel: no one’s broad convictions were really altered, but many people were moved to consider aspects of education that they had previously not given a great deal of thought. One audience member put it thusly: “my opinions have not changed but I now feel I now have many additions to what I believe children deserve.” It is this sort of response, perhaps, that might be used to answer the concern that forums of this sort amount to little more than preaching to the choir: while it is certainly true, if the answer sheets are any indication, that almost everyone at the forum agreed with each other in broad strokes, that certainly doesn’t mean they had nothing to teach one another. Much was clearly learned in terms of specific details, and the answer sheet responses as a whole attest to the vitality of the sort of public discourse the forum represents.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

“Finding Your Voice” Parent Institute and “Train the Trainers” Workshops to be Held in Bellingham, Washington on May 17th, 18th, and 19th

The Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal that houses the Journal of Educational Controversy is joining other community groups to bring a special three day workshop to Bellingham, Washington on May 17, 18 and 19th. The workshops are sponsored by the Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman that works out of the Governor’s Office in Washington State. In addition to our Institute, other community groups that are helping to plan the event include: Community to Community Development, Whatcom Family and Community Network, Whatcom County Schools in Community, local school districts, Western Washington University and immigration lawyers.

The goal of the workshops is to provide training for immigrant, refugee, marginalized and disenfranchised communities to help them advocate for their children and learn how to navigate the public school system. The planning committee has made an effort to include all cultures in our community including our Latino, Russian, Vietnamese and Punjabi communities. Translators will be available in four languages.

The two day “Training the Trainers” workshop on May 17th and 18th will train members of the community and the schools who work with these communities with ways to reach out and empower parents. On Saturday, May 19th, the trainers will train the parents at the Parent Institute.
The Parent Institute will cover the following topics:

1. How do school districts work? - Understanding the way school districts are structured, and financed, how education laws and policies are created, and how to participate in the education system is critical to help you find your voice in your school community.

2. Become an education advocate - Learn what do we mean by education advocate and how to be one. Find out new ways to help your child and the students in your school succeed.

3. Participate in your child’s education - Family involvement must be done in partnership with schools. Every parent or family member has different skills, experiences, and life circumstances that can contribute to their children’s education. Find yours!

4. Prepare your student for college - Career and college preparation starts earlier that you think. Find out what you need to do and when should you start.

5. Home-school communication skills - Learn strategies and tips to communicate better with school staff and prevent and resolve problems. 
In some early posts below, we described the unique role of the Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman. It is one of the first offices of its kind in the nation. The Office functions independently from the public school system and resolves complaints, disputes, and problems between families and elementary and secondary public schools in all areas that affect student learning.

Information on the Bellingham Parent Institute:

Location: St. Luke's Health Education Center, 3333 Squalcum Pkwy, Bellingham, WA 98225

Date and Time: Saturday, May 19, 2012, 9-2:30 pm

Free/complimentary lunch

Register online at:  Space is limited.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Journal’s Authors to Speak at our 14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum on May 2nd

Our 14th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum this year will feature authors from our current issue of the journal on the theme, “The Education and Schools our Children Deserve.”


■Francisco Rios, Dean of Woodring College of Education

■Susan Donnelly, Head of Whatcom Day Academy and Co-editor

■David Carroll, Woodring Elementary Education Faculty

■Annie Parker, 3rd Grade Teacher, Seattle

■Vale Hartley, Teacher, Whatcom Day Academy

■Paul Shaker, Professor Emeritus and former Dean at Simon Fraser University

The Controversy Addressed:
The politicizing of education at the national level has centered on issues of standards, accountability, global competitiveness, national economic growth, low student achievement on worldwide norms, and federally mandated uniformity. 
Without conversation at this deeper level about the fundamental purposes of education, we cannot develop a comprehensive vision of the kinds of schools our children deserve. We invite authors to contribute their conceptions of the kind of education our children deserve and/or the kinds of schools that serve the needs of individuals and of a democratic society.
There has been little discussion of the public purposes of our schools or what kind of education is necessary for an individual’s development and search for a meaningful life. There is a paucity of ideas being discussed at the national level around topics such as: how school practices can be aligned with democratic principles of equity and justice; how school practices can promote the flourishing of individual development as well as academic achievement; what skills and understandings are needed for citizens to play a transformative role in their society.
Date: May 2, 2012

Time: 5:00 - 7:00pm

Location: Western Washington University
               Center for Education, Equity and Diversity (CEED)
               Miller Hall 005

Contact: CEED Phone: (360) 650-3827

Sponsored by the Journal of Educational Controversy and the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Claiming our Education: In Memory of Adrienne Rich

Editor: Below is a post in memory of Adrienne Rich who died on March 27th. The author, Lee Karlovic, is a former faculty member at Western Washington University and a long time Adult Educator whose life was influenced by the ideas of Adrienne Rich. Lee is an adult educator in the historical tradition of political and personal empowerment that stands in stark contrast to many contemporary views of adult education as human resource development.  Lee Karlovic is also the author of "A Mindful Commitment to Connecting Women toward Intellectual Community", a chapter in the 2009 book, Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice. (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco). “Ohliger,” Lee reminds us, “was another American public intellectual who experienced life as if words and freedom mattered.”

A Personal Reflection: In Memory of Adrienne Rich


Lee Karlovic

Adrienne Rich, one of America's premier public intellectuals, died March 27 in California. According to her obituary in The Independent, she described herself as a "white woman, a Jew, a lesbian, and a United States citizen".

Coming across Driving into the Wreck on the new books library shelf was a life-changing event for me, a high school English teacher-in-training in the 1970s. Adrienne's artful and masterful writing breathed life into the phrase "the personal is political" in a way that I could immediately translate into my own life and work choices. Her life also spoke volumes to me. That she with her Radcliffe education had left a "charmed" East coast life that included marriage to a Harvard economist and three sons before she was 30 gave me the insight that a woman and freedom's choices, or at least the quest for freedom's choices, could be more than just an empty phrase. I began to take my own education, in and out of school, seriously. No small feat for the child of an immigrant steelworker with a fourth grade education in the dominator's language in his own war-torn homeland, a man whose broken English reflected his broken dreams of a life not to be lived.

So what, you ask? What does this have to do with me? All of you who have been, are, or will be, schooled could lean a bit more into learning instead by reading one or both of Adrienne's writings/talks - Claiming an Education and Taking Women Students Seriously.

Here's an excerpt from "Claiming an Education", a speech delivered at the 1977 convocation at Douglass College: Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking and naming for you.... Responsibility to yourself means that you do not fall for shallow and easy solutions - predigested books and ideas....

I "snuck" Adrienne's quotes and ideas like these into as many courses as I could while I was a former university education teacher. When I could figure out a direct connection with course objectives and content, I would include portions or the entire text if possible.

Although geared toward women audiences, her work goes beyond gender and other filters. And since both were presented and written decades ago, some of the content on a first reading seems dated to readers today. Great possibilities for discussion: How does this relate to you, even though you're not a woman? Even though you're a ....... (fill in the words here)? And what has and hasn't changed since she wrote this?

The final word here goes to Adrienne in an excerpt from her 1994 poem "And Now":

....I tried to listen to
the public voice of our time
tried to survey our public space
as best I could
-tried to remember and stay
faithful to details, note
precisely how the air moved
and where the clock's hands stood
and who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.
         from Dark Fields of the Republic

Her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — were found in a 1984 speech, according to her New York Times obituary:

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”


Claiming an Education

Taking Women Students Seriously (1978)
First page only: F

Rich, A. (1979). Taking women students seriously (1978). In On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978 (p. 237-245). New York: W. W. Norton.