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The Strange Politics of Education Reform

… where conservatives demand change and many alleged progressives, including teacher union elites, are really reactionary.

While this may be old news to some, it can’t be said enough: In our polarized times, education reform is the only truly bipartisan issue, whereas with other matters things invariably break down into Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, libertarian vs. conservative (social issues), libertarian vs. liberal (fiscal issues), etc. 

But in the world of edu-politics, folks from the conservative Heritage Foundation have made common cause with their counterparts at the libertarian Reason Foundation with plenty of room in the big tent for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  

Though not the main theme of an excellent blog post, “Grabbing the Bull By The Horns: Cuomo, Nutter and the Backlash Against Making Sh*t Up,” DFER executive director Joe Williams indirectly points to the odd political bedfellows who are pushing for much needed changes in education.

Williams begins his piece by writing, 

If you’ve ever been the subject of a blog-tirade by either of the Klonsky Brothers or Leo Casey, you understand that these old school reactionaries have made decades-long careers out of pushing bogus propaganda for their cause, i.e. they make sh*t up and hope that nobody calls them on it. 

The joke here is that both Casey and the Klonsky brothers come from Marxist backgrounds but really are, when it comes to education reform, not progressives but reactionaries – fervently protective of the status quo – blindly pro-union, claiming that more money will solve our education woes, all the while fighting against every meaningful way of improving the system. 

On the other hand, we have some big city liberal mayors who are trying to do the right thing in tough fiscal times. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have closed some poorly attended failing schools. So what’s the problem? The teachers unions in those cities, who profess to be all about the kids, social justice and progressivism, pound the table and insist that our outdated 19th Century Prussian-style zip-code mandated school system continue without any innovation, just more money. These unions desperately fight to maintain the status quo and snuff any real reform – charter schools, vouchers, online schools, etc. As such, it’s time we start tarring union leaders with the reactionary brush. 

And while we are talking reactionaries, perhaps their poster child should be Diane Ravitch. She was a liberal before she became conservative before she became a progressive, but she’s really a reactionary. (She is wrong about so much that she should get an award for “Yes I can make this sh*t up.”) In fact, researcher Jay Greene set aside an entire week on his blog to debunk her endless reactionary blather, which he titled “Ravitch is Wrong Week.” 

And as I wrote last week, Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal is trying to do his best for kids by expanding his state’s popular voucher program, only to be slapped down by the allegedly progressive Eric Holder. In reality, our attorney general is doing his best to emulate George Wallace, the segregationist and reactionary former governor of Alabama. 

Then there are those whom the teachers unions love to hurl “right wing” epithets at, like the admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation. There, policy expert Lindsey Burke regularly promotes various decidedly un-reactionary reforms – vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Sounds like Ms. Burke is trying to get us out of a complacent, dare I say, reactionary rut. 

Meanwhile, over at the Reason Foundation the decidedly un-reactionary director of education Lisa Snell regularly writes about the importance and benefits of school choice. 

We live in a time where the biggest enemies of change are the teachers unions. They and their fellow travelers espouse progressivism but in reality are clinging to a moribund education system that’s desperately in need of fundamental change. So I guess when you want to get things done in edu-world, look to those who are truly trying to effect real change – conservatives, libertarians and DFER-type liberals, not reactionaries in progressive clothing.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Orwellian Reinterpretation of Desegregation Fuels Federal Attack on School Vouchers

Even as the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream speech” in Washington, D.C., his Department of Justice petitioned a federal court to halt the use of Opportunity Scholarships enacted by the Louisiana Legislature on behalf of predominantly minority children.

No, it wasn’t quite George Wallace seeking to block students from entering schoolhouses. Ironically, it was Eric Holder seeking to block the exit of predominantly poor, African American children from chronically failing schools in their search of a quality education.

Holder’s filing is a challenge to the rights of parents whose kids are trapped by automatic school enrollment by ZIP code, regardless of whether that campus is identified as a failing school. The Justice Department is seeking to bar the awarding of these scholarships, also called vouchers, in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers first are approved by a federal judge.

Holder, using dubious data, argues that the exit of black children from failing schools would “impede the desegregation process” in Louisiana. He argues that the scholarship program is a civil-rights violation because schools become “whiter” as minority children flee their failing public school.

Reaction to the Justice Department challenge was fast and furious. Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, acknowledged Louisiana’s racist history, but stated, “It would be a mistake to equate the current scholarship program that provides the only avenue for low-income children to escape failing schools to past efforts that supported and encouraged ‘white flight’ 40 years ago.”

The Louisiana program has been operational for five years and was designed as a voluntary program enabling low-income parents to move their children from low-performing public schools to either higher-performing public schools or to private schools. Last year, some 5,000 children participated; almost 8,000 scholarships were awarded this year. Eighty-six percent of scholarship students who applied were from schools rated as either grade D or F. Ninety-one percent of the children were minority.

Holder’s arguments are an Orwellian reinterpretation of desegregation fights. How does keeping kids trapped in recognized dropout factories advance the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King?

What is the value of an “integrated” school if none of the kids at that school – regardless of skin color – can even read at basic levels of proficiency?

Undoubtedly, the next chapter in civil rights and education law will no longer be dominated by mere demands for integration. Rather, school transformation and parental rights to end school assignment by ZIP code – truly five digits of separation from the American Dream for millions of children across the nation – is being embraced by parents who understand that education is the key to the American Dream. A fundamental rethinking of public education, including discussion of Opportunity Scholarships and vouchers is no longer “off the table” – even among Democrats embracing school reforms.

Sadly, this is not the first time that the Obama administration has moved against vouchers. It also zeroed out funding for the highly successful Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program – even as he and the first lady exercised their parental choice to send their daughters to a very prestigious, expensive private school. Most parents in D.C. can’t afford to do that.

After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana rallied to rebuild its schools. Not only have Pelican State residents rebuilt their schools, they have completely re-imagined education. Today, they are recognized leaders on achieving successful school transformations.

It is shameful that an African American attorney general would attempt to block the exits from failing schools in the name of justice. This is not why Dr. King marched.

Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission.

Eric Holder Trumps Miley Cyrus

When it comes to obscenity, cheating kids out of a good education is far worse than a salacious dance act.

While it is a sad spectacle to watch a gawky 20 year-old stick out her tongue and sex it up in front of millions on national television, the 62 year-old U.S. Attorney General’s act is far worse, as his will do much more lasting harm. He waves his magic wand and poof – thousands of poor children are chained to the confines of failing schools in Louisiana.

Miley Cyrus would appear to be a lost puppy whose father claimed in 2011 that she was influenced by Satan. On the other hand, Eric Holder would seem to be under the spell of the teachers unions and the overrated god of diversity.

The Holder story has its roots in May when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that:

the current method of funding the statewide school voucher program is unconstitutional. Act 2, part of Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s 2012 package of education reforms, diverts money from each student’s per-pupil allocation to cover the cost of private or parochial school tuition. The act authorizes both the Louisiana Scholarship Program and the new Course Choice program. 

In other words, the voucher program is sound, but the court thought its funding mechanism wasn’t constitutional. So on June 6th, the Louisiana House and Senate compromised on a budget that allowed the program to use funds not allocated through the state’s funding formula.

Problem solved, right?

Not quite.

Later in June, the teachers unions School Choice Enemy No. 1 promptly swung into action.

The Louisiana Association of Educators and several local teachers associations have filed a class-action suit charging that the state owes local school boards $199 million as a result of the Louisiana Supreme Court decision striking down part of the state’s voucher law.

Okay, so we are still dealing with funding issues, not the legality of vouchers.

But then in August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the bomb and The Wall Street Journal pointed out its stunning irony,

On nearly the same day the Attorney General spoke in Washington to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, his Justice Department sued to block the educational dreams of minority children in Louisiana.

Late last week, Justice asked a federal court to stop 34 school districts in the Pelican State from handing out private-school vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools. Mr. Holder’s lawyers claim the voucher program appears “to impede the desegregation progress” required under federal law. Justice provides little evidence to support this claim, but there couldn’t be a clearer expression of how the civil-rights establishment is locked in a 1950s time warp.

Passed in 2012, Louisiana’s state-wide program guarantees a voucher to students from families with incomes below 250% of poverty and who attend schools graded C or below. The point is to let kids escape the segregation of failed schools, and about 90% of the beneficiaries are black. (Emphasis added.)

Impeding desegregation? On what grounds does the Justice Department make this claim? Cato’s Jason Bedrick explains,

In Tangipahoa Parish, for instance, Independence Elementary School lost five white students to voucher schools, the petition states. The consequent change in the percent of enrolled white students “reinforc(ed) the racial identity of the school as a black school.”

Five students! According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 143 white students out of 482 students at Independence Elementary School in 2010-11 (the most recent year for which data is available). Assuming that recent enrollment and racial composition is the same and that no black students received vouchers as well, that’s a shift from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white. Though the students at Independence almost certainly would not have noticed a difference, the racial bean counters at the DOJ see worsening segregation.

But the DOJ is not content merely to prevent white students from exercising school choice. The petition also cites Cecilia Primary School, which in 2012-13 “lost six black students as a result of the voucher program,” thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.” In the previous school year, the school’s racial composition was 30.1 percent black, which the DOJ notes was 16.4 percentage points lower than the black composition of the district as a whole. According to the NCES, in 2010-11 there were 205 black students out of a total enrollment of 758, so the school was 27 percent black. Assuming a constant total enrollment, the DOJ’s numbers suggest that there were 228 black students in 2011-12. The loss of six black students would mean the school’s racial composition shifted from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black as a result of the voucher program. Again, imperceptible to untrained eye but a grave threat to racial harmony according to the Obama administration’s Department of Justice.

These are the only two schools cited directly in the DOJ’s petition, so presumably they represent the two cases with the largest impact. A footnote reveals that “The net loss ranged up to thirteen students per school.”

Why is Holder doing this obscene dance?

Is he so smitten with the concept of diversity that he is letting it take precedent over the needs of poor kids in failing schools? Could be, but then again, as noted above, the voucher-driven diversity realignment is miniscule. Or, is he doing the bidding of the teachers unions who are powerful political allies? Maybe both. But whatever the motivation, the lawsuit stinks, and the harm it will inflict on mostly underprivileged, minority children is tragic.

What Holder and his ilk don’t seem to understand is that most parents are not stricken with the diversity obsession, and simply want the best education possible for their kids. If you ask any parent of any ethnicity if they rather their kid get a first class education at single-ethnicity school or a mediocre-to-lousy one at a rainbow-school, we all know what the answer would be.

Louisiana’s gutsy governor Bobby Jindal put it all into perspective in an interview with Neil Cavuto,

My parents came here over 40 years ago in search of the American dream, confident if you worked hard, it didn’t matter what race you were, didn’t matter who you knew. That’s what we’re trying to deliver for our kids. And that’s why it’s just ridiculous to me that the Obama administration would side with teachers unions over these young children.

Cavuto then asked Jindal if he thought that the teachers unions were pushing the issue because vouchers endanger their jobs. Jindal responded,

Oh, absolutely. Look, they tried, they tried to take us all the way up to the state Supreme Court to stop this program. The teachers unions did. The program is still here. They tried recalling our speaker of the House and me and some others. And we’re still here. The reality is, teachers unions, when we started this statewide, said that parents don’t have a clue when it comes to making choices for their kids. (Emphasis added.)

That’s their world viewpoint. These government unions think the bureaucrats know better. I have met with the moms. And, Neil, it would break your heart that they’re working multiple jobs. They want their kids to have a better quality of life than they have had. They’re trying to do the right thing. They’re telling me this is the first time my kid is bringing home homework, my kid is going to school with discipline. My kids are talking about for the first time thinking about going to college, the first one in our families to graduate from high school. They’re talking about becoming the first ones.

As we all know, Martin Luther King concluded his famous speech 50 years ago with the inspirational words, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.” But if Mr. Holder and the teachers unions get their way, a bunch of school kids and their families in Louisiana will remain shackled to their failing schools, guaranteeing that their shot at achieving the American dream and true freedom will be next to impossible. Dr. King would be outraged.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.