June 7, 2022

Parents’ Rights Collision: What Does Public Mean Anyway?

Last week Harrisonburg, Virginia caught a lawsuit over its policy on transgender and gender questioning students. There are similar lawsuits pending elsewhere.

There are a bunch of issues, but the crux one is language like this:

When you scratch beneath the surface more and more people believe, thankfully, that public schools should be welcoming and inclusive places for all students and teachers in terms of how they choose to identify and live their lives. And while there is going to be litigation, I suspect that courts will affirm that schools can require teachers and other personnel to call students by their preferred name or pronouns.

As we’ve discussed around here, in a public educational setting you have diminished free speech rights and teach a defined curriculum and course of study. In other words, the state can compel or restrict certain speech in a way that would not be permissible elsewhere. Names and pronouns probably fall under that. It’s also good manners, which is no small thing. (I suspect that some of what’s happening now in the name of being gender affirming is not going to age well but also in two decades people will look back and be like ‘you all really argued that much about pronouns?’)

But where the line lies when it comes to keeping information from parents is much more fraught. People tend to say, well, you can’t tell a parent something that might cause harm to a child. But, because it’s a real issue in some cases, there are provisions about that issue in state laws, including these current crop of parents’ rights bills. Here’s sample language from Florida:

This subparagraph does not prohibit a school district from adopting procedures that permit school personnel to withhold such information from a parent if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect, as those terms are defined in s. 39.01.

So in practice, that’s not the issue here. The issue really turns on when is it appropriate for school personnel to just withhold information because they think they have that prerogative, know better, or whatever and when safety is not an issue? This is the more common use case. A lot of people say ‘never.’ Some say ‘sometimes.’ And some do say ‘a lot’ because schools and educators do know better. Seeming to adhere to that latter sentiment sure didn’t help Democrats in the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia. Among parents, surprise(!), ‘never’ is the prevailing position.

A bill is moving through the legislature in North Carolina that will thrust this issue back into the discourse. Along with, again, what gender and sexuality content should be taught to kindergarten to grade 3 students and some other related issues, at issue is this language:

Some sort of mandatory reporting of any question a student might ask seems heavy handed and at odds with the informal work of schools and the professional judgement of teachers. But seeming to side with the idea that schools should encourage kids to conceal things from their parents seems like a political trap – and a problematic policy? A lot of Democrats seem to privately get this, ‘but the groups’ they say in explaining how out of position Democrats are on this issue and how “in loco parentis” has rapidly evolved to “tu es parentis” – which again is a bad way to win elections in a country with a lot of parents.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable that a school and a teacher should call a kid what they want to be called – though parents don’t support that as much as you might think (and like many issues geography matters a lot). That doesn’t seem like a free speech or free exercise issue in a public educational context even though it triggers groups on the right. But, at the same time, it also seems like the, you know, parents should get a say, too?

This is roughly where most Americans live or can get to. It is not where loud activists, on all sides, live.

Meanwhile, around the country there have been a series of walk backs like this one in New Jersey:

“Unfortunately, our learning standards have been intentionally misrepresented by some politicians seeking to divide and score political points,” Murphy said in a statement. “At the same time, we have seen a handful of sample lesson plans being circulated that have not been adopted in our school districts and do not accurately reflect the spirit of the standards. Any proposed educational content that is not age-appropriate should be immediately revised by local officials.”

And also, conversely, some schools are leaning into thishere’s KIPP:

I realized I was doing an injustice to not only my students but to myself by ignoring the complexities of intersectionality- a word my 5-year-old students understand very well.

They know this fancy word means that we are a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Each flower is different yet important. One flower is pretty all by itself but a whole bunch of them? That’s special and beautiful.

The way I walk through this world as a person of color cannot be talked about unless I include my cis male queer identity. If this is what I truly believe, shouldn’t I take this approach with my students? The big question, and probably the hardest to answer, is how?

KIPP’s a choice school. Choice does help with these questions to some extent. I’m supportive of school choice for a few reasons most notably empowerment, but I don’t think a society can just choice its way out of hard social questions.

Instead, it seems two ideas are worth considering:

First, as with other controversial issues the key is curriculum not leaving everyone to their own devices. The DIY approach here is rocket fuel for social media driven outrage.

Second, maybe this is all too important and fraught to leave to the loud activists on all sides? I was reading about this proposed transgender athlete sports bill in Ohio and it seems like neither the proponents or the opponents get what the law actually would require. Harrisonburg is being sued for things that go beyond a state policy on this issue and will likely spark more calls for a state policy curtailing them like North Carolina’s proposed bill.

Instead, perhaps it’s like this:

If you’re the kind of person for whom having a picture of a teacher with their same gender significant other, their family, or that kind of thing really triggers you then perhaps the public schools are not the right place for you or your family. Likewise, if you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s just essential that kids in K-3 get instruction in gender and sexuality the public schools might not be the place for you, either.*

The public square demands an always evolving balancing of freedom and compromise. So this would leave the rest of us to sort out the messy balancing act here between life’s public and private realms and rights, freedom, and inclusion.

Here’s Leadbelly.

*The polling on this is mixed (and selectively cited by advocates) but seems very sensitive to question wording. Vague questions find support for teaching gender and sexuality in elementary school. If you ask about K-3 and the specific language in the recent Florida legislation, the results are quite different.

June 3, 2022

Friday Fish Pics – The Rouse Family

I am really behind on the fish pics and have a great stockpile.

Today, since it’s unofficially summer everywhere, here’s a family fishing one. This is Bellwether Partner Katie Rouse and her kids Ali and Harry in Islamorada, Florida. Down in the keys. A great sport fishing destination and place to spend time.  

Friday fish what? Irregularly on Fridays here are hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Send me yours!

May 31, 2022

The Gun Issue

Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

Last week I wrote about Uvalde and the issues around school safety and firearms safety. Mary Wells and I also wrote this.

The short version is that these episodes are shocking but far more rare than most people realize. Schools are safe and trying to convince parents otherwise in pursuit of political goals is counterproductive no matter how worthy those goals may be. And “hardening” education “targets” works against positive and effective school culture and school culture is the best way to prevent school shootings. School shootings are best understood as a general societal gun and violence problem that sometimes occurs in schools – given their ubiquitousness in communities.

As is often the case on tough issues I got some great notes, thank you. A few asked for what else I’ve written on the issue, so here’s a short syllabus. By way of priors, it’s informed by a few things: I do some work on security, I’m an analyst and cover the issue, and I’ve been a first responder. I’m also not hostile to the 2nd Amendment or gun ownership but believe that with rights come responsibilities and the 2nd is not somehow the only amendment without some limits. Lots of gun owners believe that.

In 2012, after Sandy Hook, I argued in TIME that we need a moderate alternative to the National Rifle Association to disrupt politics on this issue and help change the special interest – general interest dynamic that is a big reason even modest gun safety measures don’t pass despite a lot of support. Since then the NRA has fallen on hard economic times because of its leadership, but the gun lobby remains potent. That’s in no small part because although the NRA gets the ink it has several groups on its right flank billing themselves as no-compromise alternatives to the NRA. That’s the political leverage on politicians who are worried about a primary. And that dynamic is the one to disrupt.

In 2018, after Parkland, I revisited the idea of a sportsmen, hobbyist, and conservation oriented organization in U.S. News & World Report and also made the point that changing the politics around this issue is going to take time and patient capital, not just a vote in the Senate. That capital, best I can tell, is still not there. Sincere people want quick fixes. Political operatives want an issue.

After the Michigan shooting late last year I noted how preventable these episodes generally are. But that’s about school culture, trusting environments, not about preparing for a gunfight. The answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good trusting relationship so students feel comfortable raising concerns with adults in their school community.

I’ve also written about Parkland some, which is a story of irresponsibility and inattention by the school district. The local paper won a Pulitzer covering that, but it has not penetrated the national conversation.

In The 74 in 2018, I urged everyone to dial down the fear with kids and parents given the reality that mass school shootings, while horrific and shocking, are rare. Routine gun violence is a much more pervasive problem though it’s more race and class focused. That idea doesn’t seem to have caught on as we’re back to irresponsible rhetoric about how dangerous schools are.

Also in 2018, Drew Pache and I wrote in The 74 that preparation for any school violence means just that, be prepared. It doesn’t mean you have to terrify kids or teachers.

I didn’t write this piece, but asked Pache to write about the idea of arming teachers and why its adherents have watched too many movies. He did that for The 74. Not enjoyable reading but it’s the real deal.

Here in The 74 I wrote about how the media hypes school shooting numbers and black guns scare everyone, but we ought to pay more attention to the grinding costs of handgun violence.

Also in The 74, during 2020’s big push to kick school resource officers out of school buildings I made the obvious point that you do sometimes need them. And if schools move that way they need a more robust support and counseling apparatus in the wake of any change.

There are other cats and dogs but that’s a good sampling. Hopefully it’s a list that doesn’t get much longer.

May 25, 2022

Yes, Another One.

Via Reuters.

I had some content teed up but it can certainly wait. Here is short note from Mary Wells and me, there really are not words but we tried.

Again yesterday parents in an American town had their world shattered by a truly monstrous act of violence. And although the facts are still coming into focus, as with Sandy Hook and Parkland, it appears the incident at Robb, in Texas, occurred at the intersection of mental health, firearms, and insufficient preventative action. 19 elementary school kids. 2 teachers. Others in critical condition. It’s crushing.

In our grief and frustration we can’t lose sight that four of five school shooters signal their intentions beforehand. We have insufficient red flag laws, insufficient awareness about the ones that exist, and a too lax culture of firearms responsibility. Our mental health treatments and general societal approach to mental health remains inadequate. All of these issues can be addressed without trampling civil liberties. For various reasons we just choose not to.

When it comes to firearms that’s because with rights come responsibilities, and a lucrative firearms industry has skewed the conversation about firearms from ‘where is an appropriate place for guns in our civic life?’ to “is there any place not appropriate for guns?” Should you be able to carry on campus, at a bar, in church? Should we arm teachers? Those are the questions now. It’s frog boiling stuff, that would bring a Rip Van Winkle up short, ‘wait, what?’ We’ve just gradually accepted this expansion of guns from a sporting, hobbyist, and security activity to a way of life, this central fixture of our civic life – and too often our schools. There is a horrific cost to that.

Via New York Post, a life cut short in the Robb Elementary massacre.

Even many gun owners are troubled by the ubiquitousness of open and concealed carry and the general presence of firearms way beyond hobbyist, sporting, or personal protection uses in our lives. That’s why at once there is a lot of room for agreement and progress here and the politics remain daunting.

In the end, there are no short term fixes to culture problems. Whether we have the patience and fortitude to genuinely change the culture to balance 2nd Amendment rights with reciprocal responsibilities like safe storage and sensible access restrictions is an open question that won’t be resolved by the next vote in the U.S. Senate. The 2nd Amendment is not the only one without some limits – as Justice Scalia noted in Heller. Resetting this broken conversation will take work, however.

With regard to schools, a few things to keep in mind. First, again, we’re already hearing that the answer here is “harden the target” or arm educators. We cannot turn schools into armed forts, we’re talking about kids and where they spend their days. The best preventative step on school shootings is a healthy school culture – and that obviously pays other education dividends. There is a whole industry focused on selling security hardware to schools even as we debate whether schools should do SEL at all.

Arming educators is a horrendous idea – most people have no idea what a gunfight is like and those that do caution that this is a terrible idea in practice. It’s one of those proposals where, for the most part, support is inversely related to experience.

We should grieve with these families, remember this horror and honor their suffering, but also be careful not to fuel the disturbing fascination/copycat phenomenon around some of these events.

These episodes are best disrupted upstream with good school culture, trust so students have adults they can go to with concerns, and sensible but unobtrusive security measures.

Finally, and this is hard to talk about because these incidents are so shocking from a distance and unimaginable up close. Despite a spike in violence, that we’re seeing more generally as well, schools remain largely safe. For most kids school is the safest place they go all day. What happened in Uvalde is an incomprehensible horror and an intolerable one. But schools are under a lot of pressure right now and we’re not doing educators any favors by stoking even more parental anxiety. Gun violence is a societal problem that often shows up in education settings given the ubiquitousness of schools and the connection to various kinds of domestic issues.

We must address it and to do so we need a lot more than “thoughts and prayers,” but we don’t need to make the work of public schools harder than it already is right now by terrifying parents, making kids more anxious, or turning schools into bunkers.

Posted on May 25, 2022 @ 2:30pm

May 20, 2022

Elliot Regenstein On Virginia…Plus Post Versus Post On Virginia Schools

Virginia NAEP results, 8th-grade math.

Yesterday we talked about the honesty gap analysis that was released in Virginia.

A lot of response. One that caught my eye was a truly remarkable article in The Washington Post that instead of reporting the scope of the analysis Virginia released more or less just took it on. And essentially made the case that who cares about proficient, basic is good enough! Almost half of kids proficient is actually really great – at least relatively. And didn’t engage with the rampant racial, ethnic, and income achievement gaps the report laid out or the information about how the state has systematically changed its accountability system to make things look better over time.

It’s particularly startling when you juxtapose it against this Washington Post editorial from just a few years ago on the same issue:

Mr. Northam’s comments are part of an unfortunate trend in Virginia to pull back from rigor in assessments and accountability. Instead of adopting the muscular requirements of Common Core and its assessments, the state has stuck with assessments seen to be among the easiest in the nation. Some critical tests, such as the fifth-grade writing SOL, were recently jettisoned. And now state education officials are in the final stages of adopting regulations that would overhaul how schools are accredited. The board would widen a loophole to allow for “locally awarded verified credits” from the local school board in lieu of exam passage. Officials argue there is the need to broaden the lens by which schools are judged. We agree that student growth and closing the achievement gap should be recognized, but the proposal tilts too far toward letting schools off the hook for their failures. The emphasis appears to be not on actually improving schools but rather on approving how they appear.

Does democracy die in darkness or not? The news article, which reads like an editorial, says no. The actual editorial page says yes. Readers say, wtf?

Here’s a snapshot on Virginia, from federal data courtesy of NAGB, if you think these 8th-grade math and reading outcomes are good enough then, yes, you should oppose this. If not, let’s see if there is a bipartisan center for a meaningful school improvement package touching on the various dimensions of this problem from finance, to accountability and support, and yes hopefully more choices for families.

Elliot Regenstein (who has a new book coming!) reached out about early education and its lack of prominence in the report. His note is brief but covers a lot of ground. I asked him if I could publish his feedback, he graciously agreed:

The new Our Commitment to Virginians report makes some very important points about student proficiency in the Commonwealth – both the need to improve overall proficiency, and to think differently about how proficiency rates are developed and talked about.  The Youngkin Administration is to be commended for expressing a commitment to improving student outcomes. As the conversation continues, it will be important for Virginia to wrestle with an important question: when kids are not proficient in middle school and high school, how did they get there?

Pre-pandemic, Virginia’s data told a pretty clear story:

-Many kids were falling behind even before kindergarten started. Data on kindergarten readiness showed that roughly two of every five entering kindergartners were “not ready.”

-Schools were not able to catch kids up when they were behind. In fact, 93% of students in Virginia attended schools in districts where – in the aggregate – students were losing ground over time on the state’s proficiency benchmarks. (Virginia’s data is unusual in this regard, and that may be related to the “honesty gap” identified in the new report; having very inclusive standards for proficiency may make it harder to show growth.)

This data suggests that there must be two prongs to any strategy for improving proficiency in Virginia. One is to work with schools to help them improve student growth, and in turn proficiency; regardless of how the state defines proficiency, there’s clearly a need to help schools improve (as there is in every state). But the other is to improve kindergarten.

While Virginia’s recent governors have been strong supporters of early learning, historically Virginia has been a laggard when it comes to state early childhood funding.  Pre-pandemic its state-funded preschool program served a lower percentage of children than any of the states it borders, with lower-per-pupil spending. But the state has been working diligently to improve early childhood outcomes, including a strong focus on improving the quality of teacher-child interactions. That work is really important for children in the first five years of life, and probably also offers some important lessons for the state’s K-12 system. If Virginia is serious about a long-term strategy to improve student outcomes, the pre-kindergarten years are a critical opportunity that must be addressed.

May 19, 2022

The Honesty Gap

In Virginia today Governor Glenn Youngkin released the analysis of achievement and accountability in Virginia that was part of his executive order package when he took office. It was an open secret this was coming – it was right there in the EO – yet there is still some surprise. Here’s the RTD.

The surprise is because it’s pretty comprehensive. It’s reflexively getting framed as Youngkin versus Northam – the previous governor – but the problems the report outlines are more longstanding.

If you live in the commonwealth you should read it because it’s an important and relatively unsparing look at achievement gaps that are too rarely discussed in Virginia. And it has information about overall achievement that is sobering as well. There is a lot of work to do to crate a genuinely inclusive school system.

If you are not fortunate enough to be a Virginian, there is still something here for you.

First, the report is a good look at the tension between looking good and doing well or as we sometimes call it around here, achievement realists versus public relationists. Every state should think about an analysis like this that gets beneath the puffery and reflexive tendency to focus on silver linings disproportionately to clouds.

Second, it’s a good test of where we are politically in education. Is there a bipartisan center to set aside various disagreements and political issues and work on this particular issue? I don’t know the answer to that but I hope so.

Third, if you like to argue about NAEP you will have fun with this report. But focusing on various point estimates misses the forest for the trees. The gaps in this report are substantial and run in one direction. We have to do better. In particular, the #s for 8th-graders, when the paths that will be open to students really come into focus, should shock. About one in five Black students proficient and less than one in five low-income students.

That means getting serious on accountability, doing more to support teachers, more choices for families and a more equitable finance system. It’s a tall order and one with something for everyone to oppose. That’s the challenge, and the opportunity.

May 18, 2022

Are We Turning The Corner Toward Good Political Tension In Education? Plus, Show Them The Money And Where Are The Kids?

It’s now political lore how a backbencher from Georgia started going to the well of the House of Representatives after the day’s business was concluded and howled at the moon – with only C-Span cameras as his immediate audience.

Newt Gingrich parlayed this strategy into real political power in 1994, but for a long time he was barking in an empty room, so many people understandably paid him little mind. Gingrich, for his part, realized his audience wasn’t the political class in D.C., it was people watching at home. I’m not a Gingrich fan, the opposite really, but you can’t deny he had an eye for change and opportunity.

I thought of that history when I saw this story in local Northern Virginia media the other day. Hang around certain places in education and there is a narrative you’ll hear again and again. In essence the serious people are sure that the future of education reform is largely a power struggle between “people of color” and white, largely Republican people and that if you just listen right you can discern community voice on a host of issues. It’s a comforting narrative, but out in the world something else more complicated is happening.

After Saigon fell to Communist forces in April 1975, Hung Cao’s family fled to nearby Reston, to make a new home for themselves in a low-income apartment housing complex, Cao, then a toddler, later learned English by watching the “A-Team.”

This week, Cao joined about 100 local Asian American business and education leaders who packed Cafe V, a local Korean coffee shop off Little River Turnpike, for a conversation with Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and Education Secretary Aimee Guidera.

A subtle but real shift is showing up in the data like this this and this – Democrats are losing ground with non-white voters. It’s also showing up in some real political behavior – in Virginia but also Texas and elsewhere. It’s not baked. Politically education seems like a jump ball. Voters are willing to have a look at Republicans after the pandemic experience and some of the culture wars but Republicans have a lot of work to do to close the sale. Some of that work is retail efforts like the one that Asra Nomani chronicles in the article above.

If the Republicans can get their act together (I shouldn’t have to tell you that ‘if’ is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence) it’s an opportunity for them and something Democrats ought to pay attention to with an education agenda more robust than today’s lest it become another political tale of flat footedness. If it creates more healthy political tension and a more robust debate about how to improve schools that’s good for everyone.

Related to all this, we have a new tool out at Bellwether: A barometer on parent opinion.

And also related, there sure are a lot of kids not in public schools anymore. Nat Malkus’ return to learn tracker is a great tool.

“This has been a seismic hit to public education,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “Student outcomes are low. Habits have been broken. School finances are really shaken. We shouldn’t think that this is going to be like a rubber band that bounces back to where it was before.”

After the school shooting in Michigan last year I wrote about how there are usually signs, and sometimes they are ignored. At The 74 Beth Hawkins looks into the school backstory of the person arrested in this ghastly Buffalo massacre.

Over at Fordham Daniel Buck comes out against financial education.

Honestly, though, whether financial literacy classes are effective is the wrong question to ask. Even if research found them increasing rates of saving or decreasing the rate of loan defaults, I’d still be skeptical of their inclusion in schools. The proper question to ask about any educational practice isn’t if it works, but how it compares to other interventions—and uses of the schools’ limited time and leverage.

I disagree, for a few reasons. First, sending students into the world equipped to understand it  (and have choices in it) is a key function of schools. Just because some places do financial literacy badly is not a reason to not want schools to do it well.

Second, while Buck is right it will take scarce time (that we should make less scarce), the thing about financial literacy is that it can also augment and reinforce math, literacy, civics and other subjects. As with many things curriculum matters as well as making sure it’s a relevant set of issues not abstract ones matters, too. Helping students understand some basic aspects of the financial world that will be thrust upon them while they are still teenagers is a good survival skill.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a parent or other adult who teaches you these things, that’s great. For everyone else, this is a small thing we can do to shave a few rough edges off of life for people. We make a point of giving student athletes and elite athletes counseling like this. Everyone can probably benefit.

Then again, I’m someone who thinks we should also make sure all kids can swim before they leave school, too.

Billy Strings & Bob Weir at the Ryman.

May 16, 2022

Are You Being Told Everything About The Charter School Fight?

I promise I will write about something besides the proposed charter regulations soon. But they are important as a political matter and sign of where we are in the sector. And it’s a David and Goliath sort of thing. So, it’s interesting! I kind of want to write about this amazing compilation of life advice (and fashion) from Mr. T. that I recently found. Mr. T. and his show was SEL before it was cool.

But last week everyone was abuzz….Erica Green is writing a story on the charter regulations…Erica Green is on it…and so forth. Among insiders Erica’s widely respected. Non-ideological, a legit shoe leather reporting background, saw an urban system up close in Baltimore so appreciates both how screwed up these situations are for kids and also the challenges of changing that and that beleaguered systems are often doing the best they can – even as it’s not enough. A pro in the old school sense.

Her story came this weekend. Definitely a good overview and the kind of Times story that can still impact the narrative even in today’s media environment. Here’s a similarly good overview from U.S. News with a little less process and a little more about the policy effects.

While the story is solid, this part did jump out:

[Network for Public Education] joined dozens of others — including the National Education Association, which is the nation’s largest teachers union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — in praising the department for “thoughtful and well-reasoned regulations.”

To a civilian reading this article this sounds like a clash of interest groups on either side. And at one level it is. But all of these groups mentioned and many if not all on the sign on letter have also received funding from the National Education Association or its affiliates. Readers should know that!

I don’t think these groups take these positions because they get money – though some seem astroturf-like. As we’ve discussed here over the years, people confuse the causal chain on those claims. People and organizations give money to groups that think like them on issues, the groups don’t start thinking that way because of the cash. Like finds like more than it creates like. I am aware of some payola like that and groups that will work for the highest bidder, but it’s relatively rare. Rather, it’s a symbiotic sort of relationship, a network with network effects, not a straight up payoff kind of thing. Still, it should be disclosed and explained because it’s important context. These groups are not just free agents who saw this issue and decided to act and lo and behold everyone else was, as well. Rather, these are networks and coalitions working together and there are broader issues in play. That’s also obviously true of team charter, as well, although the increasingly broad footprint of charters increasingly creates a different dynamic.

Anyway, readers deserve to know that kind of thing, who is working together, why, how, especially when the dynamics on these issues are an open secret in Washington. It would help explain why a public official would think nothing of just saying, go ask the interest groups about a federal regulation under consideration. These networks become hermetically sealed over time, that’s bad for policymaking – and politics.

It’s also context on observations like this from the article,

Naomi N. Shelton, the chief executive of the National Charter Collaborative, which supports charter school leaders of color, said she hoped the Education Department listened to the concerns of those who might question that judgment.

“The people who are fighting for this don’t even look like the folks who would be impacted,” Ms. Shelton said. “And the students who come to us are not students they’re even engaging with.”

And, it’s particularly germane here because the Network for Public Education crowd has made an unhinged, loud, and dishonest career arguing everyone else is on the take. Here’s Jon Chait in his newsletter, a few highlights:

Speaking of, this week I wrote about the Biden administration’s regulations on the Federal Charter Schools program, which appeared designed to strangle the program. In particular, I was astonished that the Department of Education refused even to explain the rationale to reporters, instead referring them to the Network for Public Education, a left-wing, rabidly anti-reform group that has received funding from teachers unions.

This naturally triggered another hyperbolic response from Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch, two of the Network’s founders, who are among the most influential progressive activists in the education space. Their response claims to “uncover” nefarious details about my wife’s work as an education policy analyst for a non-profit.

This is part of a years-long effort they have undertaken to create the appearance of a conflict of interest where none exists. To begin with, many journalists have spouses who work in politics or government, and whose work would be impacted in some way by changes to policy. Those roles are essentially never disclosed. Whatever you think the standard should be – and one could argue for a much stricter standard – it simply is not part of how opinion journalism operates. If there was a norm for opinion journalists to disclose whenever they opined on a subject that in some way touched on their spouse’s field, you would see an enormous number of these disclosures.

I mentioned in my column that the Network for Public Education is regularly cited in stories that do not mention its funding by teachers unions. I know by happenstance of a columnist that wrote a laudatory column about a teachers union leader whose group funds that columnist’s spouse. I don’t believe in the logic of the sins of one side justifying the other. My point is that my wife’s work is not a conflict of interest at all. But it is revealing that Ravitch and her allies have managed to sustain this fake conflict angle for years without ever having to account for a much more direct conflict of interest they are themselves undertaking. I think that does give a sense of the utter bad faith at work.

These accusations are only coherent within the world they’ve created, in which anybody who disagrees with teachers unions on policies can only be acting out of nefarious secret financial interests. The degree to which they have managed to create the illusion of an ethical issue is a measure of the delusional ideological paranoia that pervades their worldview. 

Accusations against me are not your problem, but the Democratic party allowing its education policy to be influenced by crazy people is

I will note, in the interest of transparency, I know Chait and his spouse, Robin, professionally. She’s great. She should have the newsletter! The idea she’s a charter hack is preposterous, especially given where she works now – WestEd – a group we work with at times here at Bellwether. They are not some sort of pro-charter outfit. And over the years she’s worked at places that get teachers union money and ones that don’t. Among the adults that’s how it works. Despite the simplicity hacks ascribe to them, these issues are complicated. There is a lot of good and bad on charters and many other issues.

All of this, of course, might lead you ask, well what about Bellwether, my day job? We work with charter schools for sure, and orgs that support them, and we also work with school districts, and intermediaries that support them. There is impactful work that can help improve conditions and context for kids in all those places. We also disclose all of our clients on our website, always. We don’t do that because we’re boy scouts, although transparency is embedded in our organizations’ core values, rather it’s precisely because of all this nonsense. You can look for yourself and see who we work for – and as far as I know it’s the ideologically broadest array of any organization or firm in the sector.

What’s probably more interesting is we’ve fired, and been fired by, clients because we value a variety of viewpoints around our team. We are fine with dissent and don’t squelch it even when we’re pressured to do so. Debate and expression of ideas is instrumental to progress from where we sit. And we won’t toe anyone’s party line. I don’t know that we have any reflexive or rabid charter haters, they wouldn’t fit in here for other reasons around how we do our work. But we certainly have serious charter skeptics and people who see the cost – benefits around charters and choice differently than say I do. We also have people more bullish about choice than me. That diversity exists on most questions.That’s what makes our work valuable for our clients, we’re not Kool-Aid drinkers.

Unfortunately, like many issues in American politics ed reform / anti-reform is now like a team sport.* Everyone must pick a side. And the amount of backchannel chatter about how no one can say what they actually think about this or that or how the field is now stuck Ice Nine-like around various fads or fashions is astonishing. That’s too bad, but for our purposes here reporters ought to help readers understand how it all works because it’s impacting the experience of their kids.

The story here is that even though the Biden Administration is drowning politically and Democrats are desperate to throw them life lines wherever they can given the potential consequences of the next couple of elections, on this charter question you have a genuine split in the party. It’s producers versus consumers, special interests against reformers, deregulation, all the big ones. It’s not a new story. But an important one.

*Assignment editor desk: An interesting article might be a look at the complicated relationship and politics between voucher/tax credit advocates and charter school advocates about how to balance those issues, lanes, windows of opportunity, “don’t get in my way,” all of that! Another good one would be a look at the role of school districts in chartering, authorizing and taking federal charter school dollars and then closing schools in short order or not opening them. Districts are the modal authorizer of charters.

May 12, 2022

A Weekend At Bernie’s Charter Policy? Why Is Joe Biden Parroting Sanders On Charters?

From The New York Times

The 2016 Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was pretty tight. The 2020 Sanders re-run, not so much. Joe Biden surged to victory on the strength of the Black Democratic vote in South Carolina, winnowed the field, and never looked back. You surely remember who he ultimately beat? Bernie Sanders.

But you might not know that if you only followed charter school policy. It’s Sanders’ view of the world not Delaware Joe Biden – who represented a pretty good charter state in the Senate – driving policy now at the Department of Education. That’s a problem because it’s a view of the world out of step with the evidence and arguably with the politics.

So one of the more interesting political questions around the proposed charter school regulations might be, why is Biden sucking Sanders’ fumes on charter policy?*

If you recall the Biden – Sanders Unity document, and if you’re a normal person I’m sure you try not to, it included language on charter schools that is basically a distillation of the ideas behind these proposed regs:

It wasn’t a ban per se but it was a de facto war on chartering. It was a bone to throw in the context of how much Biden could move left and still remain a viable generation election candidate.

There has been a lot of focus on the kamikaze mission of the teachers’ unions cat’s paws. Jon Chait has more on that today. But that’s par for the course. And their job as a special interest is to advocate for their interest when the window is open to do so. It’s not to reflexively do what’s politically sensible for Democrats or what’s the best policy for kids. Why the Biden White House is going along with this is a better question. No one expected a big push for charter schools given the politics, but these regs are something different.

Yes, in the 2020 race Biden was hostile to charter schools. But he hasn’t been a doctrinaire anti-choice type. In the 1990s, as the D.C. voucher bill was hotly debated he said he was reconsidering his opposition to that program. That’s another reason this fight is so strange. It’s one thing to throw some anti-charter red meat on the campaign trail or even have a policy of benign neglect once in office. That’s politics. It’s another to use the regulatory process to curtail charters. That’s policy.

You don’t need the Obama position on charter schools. Just what about a Joe Biden position? It should go without saying, as with some other Sanders positions, the charter one plays better on Twitter than towns around the country.

And of course, it would be bad for kids, including in ways that cut against priorities of this administration.

The President talks a lot about understanding the anxiety and stress that Americans feel around the kitchen table trying to make ends meet. He gets intuitively why joblessness or rampant inflation is terrifying for working class Americans. Another stress and hard situation is what to do for your child’s schooling when the school you are assigned to is not working for your family. If you have means there is one way to solve that problem. If you don’t then you need government to ensure you have some choices – especially because, as they say, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sanders, too, has spoken eloquently about the loneliness and isolation a lot of Americans feel – in ways you don’t often hear from political candidates. School can’t singularly solve that, but not being able to have your children in a school that works for them surely doesn’t help anyone feel more connected to their community.

That’s why expanding choice is part and parcel of an agenda that aimed at a more inclusive America not at odds with it. If the politics of the moment don’t allow for expanding that agenda, at least don’t curtail it.

In other words, Mr. President, you won. Please act like it. 

*The obvious answer is that while everyone was happily greeting Miguel Cardona as a consensus pick the Biden Administration was stacking the Department with teachers union alums and allies and folks who wouldn’t politically rock the boat. Except you can do that and still not do things like this regulation, which is basically a political unforced error at a moment there is little margin for one.