Tag Archives: private schools

Cashing in on Fear:  The Catalyst Behind the Trump/Devos Education Budget?

The current focus on public school improvement is flawed.  Politicians, the public, and even some educators are caught up in a oversimplified mindset that lumps all public schools into one huge cesspool of incompetence.  It is dangerous to generalize anything, and public schools are no different.  It is not public schools in general we need to fix, but what is happening within each individual public school that needs our attention.  Many public schools are doing an excellent job educating children, but unfortunately, they are being dragged down the rabbit hole with those that are doing a poor job.

To say all public schools are bad and in need of improvement is a generalization that is simply not true.  According to education researcher John Hattie, the single biggest variance between a good school and a bad school is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.  Dismantling public schools in favor of charter schools and creating an open-door policy for parents to send their child to the school of their choice will not resolve inconsistent quality issues in the classroom.  Due to the human element, classroom quality issues are as likely to show up in charter schools as they are in public schools.  It is not a public school or charter school that makes the difference in a child’s education.  As Hattie points out, it is the quality of what transpires in the classroom that makes a difference.  Simply being hired by a charter school will not make a person a better teacher.  Enrolling a child in a charter school is not a guarantee of academic success or teacher competence in the classroom.  With the future of public schools in jeopardy and a shrinking teacher pool, it stands to reason today’s public school teachers will be tomorrow’s charter and private school teachers, so unless we resolve the quality issue we are doing little more than transferring the problem from one school to another.   Proponents of charters will argue charter schools will only hire the best teachers and cull the weaker ones.  They may try, but I am afraid they may find as the public schools have found, there are not a lot of master teachers walking around looking for a job.  Pile that problem on top of current hiring practices in many charter schools such as hiring unlicensed and inexperienced teachers and you have a recipe for disaster waiting in the wings.  Unless, charter schools can find the magic teacher formula that has eluded public schools, their savior status will quickly fade.  Unfortunately, at that point, we will have to sleep in the bed we have made due to a misplaced focus.

Some will say I am putting the blame on teachers, and yes, I am, but there is enough blame to go around for everyone including school administrators, school boards, politicians, parents, the public, and the students.  Everyone must share in the blame when students do not learn, but in rank order, teachers, students, parents, and school administrators are the most responsible.  Sorry, educators, but that is the bottom line truth in a nutshell.  Sorry, parents and politicians, but charter schools and private schools will not resolve the issue, especially since those schools have the same problem of finding quality teachers as the public schools.  At least, public schools have minimum standards teachers must meet to teach while most charters and privates schools can and often do hire almost anyone off the street.  Therefore, being called a charter school does not make a school better.  Regardless of what politicians say, and many parents believe, parent choice is nothing more than a distraction that takes away from the real education focus needed to fix schools and ensure students learn.  For any school to be successful – public, charter, or private –  the focus must be on quality, attitudes, and commitment. Promoting dismantling public schools shows a lack of commitment in any of these areas, and that lack of commitment has escalated over the past 16 years mainly for one reason – fear.

Since 9/11/2001, America has been at the mercy of fear.  Fear is the root of our current state of dysfunction in all areas of our lives including education.  We are currently in a state of dysfunction that is more dangerous than maybe anything this country has ever faced; we fear terrorists, we fear immigrants, we fear the Republicans, we fear the Democrats, we fear conservatives, we fear liberals, we fear any belief outside our own, and we fear and mistrust the color of a man’s skin.  This is not the first time in our history we have been in such a state of distress, but it is one of the few times in our history we have allowed fear to rule our lives and distract our focus.   In the 1960s, we feared thermonuclear warfare with the Soviet Union, but instead of allowing that fear to distract us, we used it to sharpen our focus.  Out of that fear, we put a man on the moon, built a national highway system second to none in the world, put greater focus on math and science in our public schools, and created the Internet as part of national defense.  Fear created a constructive response rather than the unconstructive response we are seeing today.  Since 2001, we have used fear as an excuse to fight two wars against terrorism with little to show for the loss of blood of the brave men and women who served our country, used fear to turn our political system and nation upside down, used fear to turn citizen against citizen, used fear to isolate ourselves from the world, and used fear to create a dysfunctional education dialogue that threatens to destroy an institution that helped make America great – our public school system.  In the 1960s, we turned fear into productive action while today we have allowed fear to drag us into uncooperative thinking and inaction.

Over the last 16 years, fear has ruled our lives and governed how we respond to events and issues.  Our answer to just about everything today is to lash out negatively, cast blame, and think in short term solutions.  The current dysfunctional focus on public schools is an excellent example.  In the 1960s, when we were caught up in an arms race with the Soviet Union, we did not scrap our education system or try to improve it with our heads in the sand.  Of course, back then, there was an “us versus them” mentality in America and not the present “us versus us” mentality.  Today, there is a political venom flowing through the veins of our country that no amount of antidote is likely to cure.  We are trapped in pockets of group think where outside views are considered a threat and too often solutions are reactions to distractions rather than the real issues.  Charter schools and vouchers are prime examples of such distractions.  These vehicles of parent choice distract from issues such as teacher quality and child poverty.  Such distractions can easily be seen in the education cuts proposed by President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos in their 2018 education budget.  Instead of cutting vital education programs that support millions of public school children across the nation, they could have easily used a portion of the $21 trillion saved by dropping out of the Paris Climate Accord to fund their pet charter school and voucher projects, yet they chose to cut public education by over 9 billion dollars or roughly 14 percent.  Why?  Could it be they understand the best time to push a personal agenda is during times of fear?

Any budget is a statement of values, and the Trump/Devos education budget is no exception.  Anyone who looks closely at the suggested budget cuts and to the areas the cuts are redirected can see the ultimate goal is to dismantle public education in favor of parent choice options.  If passed, the Trump/Devos budget will cut the United States Department of Education funding by $9 billion and redirect $1.4 billion of that money to school choice.  The cuts will eliminate at least 22 programs including $1.2 billion for after school programs which will have a negative impact on 1.6 million, primarily poor, children; $2.1 billion for teacher training which is a vital component for developing quality classroom teachers in both charter and public schools; $27 million for arts education; $72 million dollars for international and foreign language programs; and $12 million dollars for Special Olympics programs.

President Trump and Betsy Devos say the federal government does not need to be involved in these programs.  According to them, the programs being cut can be more effectively handled and funded at the state and local level.  Maybe, they can be handled more effectively at the state level, but how can a poor state such as Mississippi fund these programs when it cannot afford to adequately fund the state public school programs it has?  Mississippi can’t, so where does that leave after school programs, arts education, foreign language programs, and the Special Olympics in the state?  It means either the citizens of Mississippi will pay higher taxes to foot the bill, or those programs will be discontinued.  Likely, the programs will be dropped or phased out.

Most people in Mississippi will feel some concern for losing after school programs, arts education, and especially the Special Olympics, but in a state where so many believe English is the only language needed in America, the loss of foreign language will barely be given a passing thought.  That is a shame.  I have a PhD, but by global standards I am illiterate.  I regret to say I speak one language, English, and although that has been good enough for me, it most likely will not be good enough for my grandchildren and especially my great grandchildren.

I recently read over 80% of the world’s population has access to a cell phone or mobile device, and within a year – a couple at the most – that number will grow to 90%.  According to David Rothkopf, author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow, we are possibly only a couple of years from every man, woman, and child in the world being connected for the first time in history through a man-made system.  Companies like Amazon have already gone global, and others will soon follow.  I am not talking about moving companies overseas; I am talking about Internet presence.  Amazon can touch anyone in the world whenever they please.  That is the future for all of us.  Our kids better be able to communicate with the world when that happens.  They will not only need the latest and the greatest technology tools, but they will also need a second language and preferably a third language if they hope to compete in the world market.  Speaking only one language will no longer be good enough even for Mississippi, yet, we have a President and Secretary of Education who want to cut foreign language programs.  Why?  How does that make any sense at all unless we are in such fear of the world that we plan to remain isolated indefinitely.

A contributing factor to fear is the unknown, and since 2001, as a nation we have been grappling with fear of the unknown:  fear of unseen and often unknown terrorists, fear for our livelihoods amid fluctuating markets, fear of leaders who so often put their personal agendas above the good of the people, fear of losing our guaranteed rights as citizens, fear of changing attitudes and values, and fear our public schools are no longer in capable hands.  We have seen our leaders grasp at straws for solutions, and turn against each other in the process.  We have witnessed politicians wage war on science somehow ignorant to the facts that throughout history governments who denounced science often lost.  We have watched as our leaders and our people have grown closed minded to the diversity that made us the greatest country in the world.  And, now rather than focus on the real issues, of teacher quality, academic support systems, and poverty, we are watching helplessly as our leaders slowly dismantle a once proud education system that produced Americans who revolutionized land and air transportation for the world, turned simple farmers into a skilled labor force for industry, and lay the knowledge foundation that led to the world’s first heart transplant, harnessing of nuclear energy, put the first man on the moon, and produced some of the world’s greatest literary giants.  Unfortunately, our leadership is in the market for a new vehicle, and they will not be satisfied until that vehicle is sitting in the garage with or without wheels.  It is sad, they do not understand there is no need to reinvent the wheel; all that is needed is to fix a spoke or two in the old wheel, so we can focus on what really matters – our children’s future.

JL

©Jack Linton, June 18, 2017

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EdBuild: Secrecy and the End Game

          It is January 2017, and the assault on public school education in Mississippi continues.  The Republican push to privatize public education is at full throttle, and once again funding for public schools will most likely fall far below the amount required by state law.  In fact, the Joint Legislative Budget recommendation for the 2017-18 school year is 180.9 million dollars short of the amount required to fully fund the MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) formula.  However, if state leaders get their way, shortchanging MAEP may not be an issue much longer.  In the fall of 2016, they hired an out of state group (EdBuild) to study the formula and make recommendations for changes.  After the Initiative 42 battle over MAEP funding in 2015, most public school educators had been expecting such a move to rewrite or eliminate the formula.  However, the clandestine approach state leaders took to hire EdBuild as well as their efforts to block the public from gaining access to knowledge about the scope of the consulting firm’s work, truly troubled public school educators and their supporters.

When the public discovered, state leaders had hired EdBuild to study and recommend changes to the MAEP formula, they asked to see the EdBuild contract.   However, they were denied access to the contract until the state attorney general issued an opinion forcing the state to allow public access.  Why would state leaders deny the public information they were entitled to receive?  Why the secrecy?  Also, why did state leaders deliberately duck the public hearing to discuss the contract?  They initiated the hiring, so they should have been available to answer questions about the hiring.  Why wouldn’t they address the concerns of citizens face to face in the hearing?  Furthermore, why was the hearing cut short after 75 minutes?  Why were only a select few allowed to speak?  Why were people from the general public who had made arrangements to get off work to attend the meeting and address EdBuild officials unable to comment?  What were the motives behind the actions of state leaders?  What motivated them to be secretive and evasive?

The motive behind their actions was simple!  MAEP has been a pain in the side of state leaders and legislators for years, and they want it to go away.  Doing away with MAEP for a new formula or rewriting the old formula would reduce challenges to education funding as well as give Republican legislators added leverage in their quest to push forward with parent choice and privatization of public schools.  Rewriting the formula to include charter schools and vouchers as well as provide assistance to private schools and homeschools would seal the deal for state support of parent choice and privatization of public schools and open the door to ultimately dismantling public schools.

For state leaders in Jackson, dismantling public school education is the end game.  The secrecy they created around the hiring of EdBuild, along with their reluctance to be open and honestly address the concerns of the public regarding that hire, speaks volumes about their intent.  EdBuild’s January 2017 report only added coals to the fire.  In the report, the firm made several recommendations that, if adopted, could have dire consequences for public education in Mississippi.

First, EdBuild recommended Mississippi adopt a new student base cost.  Under that recommendation, the student base cost would not include an annual adjustment to account for inflation.  Without an adjustment for inflation, funding that may have been adequate initially would, over time, become grossly inadequate to support public schools.  Under the recommendation, increases in student costs would only be made at the discretion of the state legislature.  Based on the Mississippi Legislature’s history for  funding public education, the initial amount set for the student base cost would most likely remain the same indefinitely or more precisely forever.

In another recommendation, the consulting firm recommended the state decrease the state’s responsibility for funding public education by placing more of the burden on the local communities.  I imagine there was a great deal of back slapping and high fives in Republican chambers at the state capitol when they heard that recommendation.  When adopted, such a recommendation would significantly increase the amount of local taxes citizens pay in their communities to support local schools.  Under this recommendation, the burden to fund public school education would be greatly reduced at the state level and transferred to the local communities.  Locally, citizens would see significant increases in the amounts they pay for car tags, property taxes, and other personal taxes such as sales taxes.  The legislature would have less of a role in appropriating public education funds, but it is a sure bet they would maintain or even increase their authority to dictate how much local money individual school districts would have to funnel to charter schools, vouchers, and private schools/academies.

The EdBuild report also stated that [In Mississippi] “Ratios of students to guidance counselors, teachers, and librarians are all significantly lower than the national average.”  Therefore, EdBuild recommended the ratio of student to staff/faculty should be monitored closely and maintained at the national average of 16:1.  This recommendation would open the door to reduce the number of guidance counselors, teachers, and school librarians.  Based on the data reported by EdBuild, librarian positions would most likely be the first cut from public schools.

These are just a few of the EdBuild recommendations and their consequences if adopted.  There are other recommendations such as changing the definition of “poverty” and how it is calculated.  Presently, socioeconomic status is determined by “free and reduced lunches,” but under the EdBuild recommendation such status would be determined at least partially by the United States Census.  Since EdBuild has yet to run numbers to compare the impact of the new definition versus the old definition on individual school districts, it is unclear how such a change may impact schools.  However, one thing that is glaringly clear about this recommendation as well as the other recommendations is that it will not necessarily place more money into public school classrooms unless maybe the classroom conforms to the new definition of “poverty.”  That is strange since legislators say the primary reason a revision or new public education funding formula is needed is to put more money into ALL classrooms.  They claim public school classrooms are suffering under the MAEP formula.  Of course, anyone, not drinking the Kool-Aid, knows classrooms are suffering because they are annually underfunded by the Mississippi Legislature.

State leaders contend the challenge to adequately fund public education will become a thing of the past once the old MAEP formula is rewritten or a new funding law is written to take its place.  However, why should the citizens of Mississippi harbor any hope or expectations that legislators will follow a new or revised funding law, especially since funding will most likely remain at the Legislature’s discretion?  That is where EdBuild’s recommendations come into play.  A truth about the recommendations, that no one can dispute, is that if adopted, the recommendations will make it easier for the Legislature to continue to fund public education at nine figure deficits.  Under a revised or new formula, it will be much easier to hide or justify inadequate education funding.  At least, that is what the Republican leadership in Jackson is hoping to achieve by hiring EdBuild to recommend changes to the MAEP formula.

If EdBuild’s recommendations are adopted and implemented, within a few short years, no one will remember MAEP and its promise of adequate funding for public schools.  Nine figure deficits in public education will become the norm since funding will be tied to a cost factor that is perpetually locked.  As a result, the public will continue to wrongly associate struggling public schools with incompetence and mismanagement when in truth their struggles will more likely be the result of inadequate funding.

The end game is the desire for parent choice and privatization will escalate among the public, and the Republican leadership in Jackson will have won.  The major problem is thousands of poor and middle class children will be stranded within the crumbling infrastructure of the public school system unable to meet the selective demands of charter and private schools and without the means to take advantage of vouchers.  The end game for Mississippi is a cheap labor force, a status quo of the “haves” and the “have nots,” and an everlasting home at the bottom of prosperity.

JL

©Jack Linton, January 24, 2017