Reform Education Reform, or Prepare to Get DeVossed

Education reform itself is in dire need of reform. From the paucity of victories in recent years, to the growing number of groups doing and saying the exact same things as their predecessors, to the significant sums of money spent simply to “fight the good fight” without a reward, it is clear the the old model isn’t working. The DeVos process only provided a clearer blueprint for how to oppose such changes and turn communities, states, and even the nation against needed improvement.

The reform community can either learn from the past few years—and particularly the past few months—or it can stand by the dogmatic approaches that are struggling to resonate with policymakers, parents, advocates, and educators. The choice seems easy, no?

– Patrick Riccards, aka Eduflack, for the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper. Read the full piece, (please), Watch out, reformers, you’re about to get DeVossed

Taking a Long View on State Cuts to School $

Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy issued an audacious idea as his administration struggles to balance a growing state budget with shrinking state dollars. With a budget deadline quickly approaching, Malloy recommended that Connecticut zero out state funds for public schools in 28 of the state’s wealthiest communities.

The Democratically controlled legislature responded to its Democratic governor with the expected retort, not until you pry the state’s checkbook from our cold, dead fingers, as the Hartford Courant reported.

Sure, it is politically unpopular for anyone, particularly a Democratic governor, to suggest cutting public education dollars in any way, shape, or form. But when state law requires a balanced budget and the coffers are much lighter than anyone expects, what are your options? The current budget already reflects significant cuts in higher education, hospitals, social services, and just about every other program Dems hold dear. The dollars have to come from somewhere.

In many ways, Malloy should be (silently) applauded for touching a budget rail few ever want to touch. And at the end of the day, he is right. In the name of shared sacrifice, is it better to cut a few school dollars from the incredibly well resources communities in a largely wealthy state, or to cut all schools? Or to put a finer point on it, better to have Greenwich wait a year before upgrading their tablets or to force Hartford or Bridgeport to eliminate a few science teacher positions in their high schools?

Budget decisions are always easy … until we make it an either or decision. No one ever wants to reduce K-12 spending … until they see the increased tax bill that might come with it. We want all schools to be treated the same … until we see the price tag that goes with equal funding or need-blind budgeting. We all want a fully funded school cost sharing system until we realize it means deeper cuts at the local university or the closing of our neighborhood hospital.

So I’ll say it. The 28 communities Malloy offered for a zeroing out of school funds from the state will not feel the pain. With virtual certainty, I can say that classrooms in those communities will not suffer because of the elimination (if it ever becomes law).

I’ll also say that those same school districts should look at this as a golden opportunity to smartly play the long game. If the state is zeroing your schools out of the budget, negotiate the trade off. Seek reductions in administrative oversight from the state. Lessen the reporting required by the state department of education. Gain new flexibility in terms of how you address state requirements and standards. Obtain the ability to pilot and try new things that the state may ordinarily oppose.

There is a reason states chose not to participate in NCLB and then others chose not to play Race to the Top. They didn’t want the strings attached to the money. Now they have greater flexibility to do things their ways, as long as they meet the overall goals set for K-12 in their state.

It’s the same reason you see many state universities opting for funding beyond the legislature. At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, state dollars represent less than 10% of the total spending on grounds. Schools like U.Va.’s law school, graduate business school, and med school actually take zero dollars from the state just so they can enjoy greater control and increased flexibility.

I get that school districts expect to get a certain number of dollars from the state each year. As a school board chairman in Virginia, I waited with great anticipation to see what the final formula would be from the Virginia General Assembly. But I also saw the volumes and volumes of reports our district had to submit to that same state each year. And I know our district likely would have given up a few state dollars to lessen our reporting burden.

I get that Governor Malloy’s proposal will never make it into the final bill. No legislator wants to go home and say he voted to deny his community school dollars. But perhaps such a proposal should become law. And maybe, just maybe, those affected communities would see they hold great leverage in the deal, and could reshape their relationships with the state moving forward.

In public education, it needs to be about the long game. Is a few hundred thousand dollars today (money that could easily be raised through a community silent auction in many of those towns) worth greater autonomy and reduced administrative burdens for many years to come? Ask a local school superintendent. You might be surprised by the answer when it is made an either or question.

 

Following the CT Charter Money

Up in Connecticut, they are slogging it out over the future of charter schools. As part of education reforms signed into law in 2012, the most significant school reforms legislated in the state’s history, lawmakers pledged to both increase the number of charter schools and available charter seats. At the same time, they put in place a plan to increase the per-pupil payment to said charter schools, bringing financial commitments closer to the per-pupil costs of the traditional public schools in those cities.

The financial realities set in. In 2014 and again this year, Connecticut has experienced lighter state coffers than anticipated. Reductions in revenue have meant cuts to budgets. And charter schools have been on the block for such cuts.

It is important to note, though, that when the ed reform law was originally passed, there were only 17 charter schools in 10 cities across the state. Those schools educated less than 2 percent of the total K-12 public school population.

Anyone who has followed the education reform battles knows that charter school advocates do not go quietly when their programs are slated for cuts or even freezes. And Connecticut is no different. In today’s Hartford Courant, ed reporter extraordinaire Kathleen Megan, along with Matthew Kauffman, has a great piece that looks at where the charter school funding comes from. In a small state like Connecticut, when millions of dollars is spent to advocate for less than 2 percent of the public school population, following the dollars becomes an important and necessary exercise.

Full disclosure, Eduflack served as CEO of one of the groups that Megan and the Courant write about. In fact, I led the ed reform org when we helped pass those major gains for reforms and overall school improvement. And I led both a 501c3 and a 501c4 in the process.

Those who know Eduflack know I’m never one to shy away from a question. So while it seems the CT ed reform community doesn’t want to talk about the “follow the money” storyline, I was happy to oblige.

Patrick Riccards, a former chief executive officer for ConnCAN, said that when he was there — from 2011 through 2012 — most of the funding came in equal parts from board members, the hedge fund community, and local foundations.

He said that in general many of the same names turn up as contributors to several education reform groups.

For many of those givers with an entrepreneurial leaning, Riccards said, it is far more appealing to fund new schools — charters — than to try to fix failing schools when there is so little agreement about how best to do that.

Riccards, who is now chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, said he is convinced that ConnCAN’s donors were “true believers” who were donating funds because they believed they were improving education for children. “They don’t make any money off the schools,” Riccards said. “It’s one of those great urban legends. There’s no grand conspiracy.”

A fair assessment? Read the piece. Check it out. Let me know.
UPDATE: For more on the topic, also check out this piece from the Connecticut Mirror. 

How About Those Edu-Elections?

If anything, yesterday’s midterm elections were entertaining. We saw incumbents defeated. We saw incumbents previously left for dead winning big. We saw darkhorses win in the end. We races long written off come in within recount range. For those without a vested interest in a specific candidate, it was a heckuva night.

While yesterday’s results will be deconstructed ad naseum in the coming days and weeks, let’s take a look at some of the edu-implications.

The Power of Teachers’ Unions

It was the best of times and worst of times for the teachers’ unions. Teachers were able to start the night by crowing loudly about Tom Wolf’s win for the Pennsylvania governorship, knocking off an incumbent Republican governor who had slashed state education spending and sought to cancel out teacher contracts in Philadelphia. The unions also got to wrap up Election Day wit a big win, as Tom Torlakson was re-elected as state superintendent for public instruction in California, turning back reformer-backed Marshall Tuck. (And we will set aside the fact that the job has very little actual power in California education, with the real strength lying with the state board of education).

But what happened in between will have many people questioning the political power of the teachers’ unions. AFT and NEA put major dollars and major GOTV muscle into taking the governorships in states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado. All went Republican. Strong union support couldn’t even help true-blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland elect Democratic (presumably pro-union, pro-teacher) governors.

Those Dems that did win the big chairs have some “history” with the teachers’ unions. In Connecticut, Dannel Malloy barely won re-election, and likely owes his win to teachers after just two years seeking to eliminate teacher tenure. In Rhode Island, Dem Gina Raimondo won the race, largely because she took on unions as part of a pension reform push she led.

Put all together, and the unions had limited impact in statewide elections, particularly in those states they targeted.

The Role of Ed Reformers

Yes, the AFT and NEA had a rough night. But it wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops for education reformers either. They lost their biggest prize of the evening when Torlakson beat Tuck in Cali. Reformers only won half the prize they sought with a big spend in the Minneapolis school board race.

Ed reform Dem governors like CT’s Malloy and NY’s Andrew Cuomo only won by seeking to reframe or rewrite their past support for reforms, as Cuomo practically came out as anti-CCSS.

In fact, reformers seemed most proud by Raimondo’s win, believing pension reform is a sure path to more education reform.

While much of the edreform community tends to focus on Democratic reformers, it was a good night for GOP edreformers. NM Gov. Susana Martinez., MA Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, and GA Gov. Nathan Deal to name but a few.

Common Core Impact

When it comes to the political impact of Common Core, support of opposition seemed to be neither help nor hindrance. The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli says that half the Republican governors are pro-Common Core. For those like Ohio’s John Kasich, such support didn’t hurt him at all. School Reform News reported that nine of the 10 GOP govs up for re-elect yesterday were against Common Core. For those like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Rick Scott, opposition to the Core helped. (Though I have to question School Reform News’ math, as with OH’s Kasich and NM’s Martinez, I already have two of the 10 GOP govs pro-CCSS, without adding voices like NV’s Sandoval and GA’s Deal.)

Those Pesky Statehouses

Over the weekend, John Oliver ranted about how few were paying attention to state legislature elections. And he is absolutely right. For education, that’s where the action will be, from CCSS to testing, from teacher evaluations to school funding. We still need to wait for the dust to settle, but the initial returns seem to show that GOP governors will have more supportive legislatures behind them, while Dem governors will have a few less supporters on their benches. Issue coalitions may very well win the day in state capitals, particularly on issues such as education.

No doubt there is more to come. The one thing we know with certainty? With Sen. Lamar Alexander taking over as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, it is safe to say we have a Senate chairman who, as a former gov, former EdSec and former university president, knows a thing or two about the issue of education.

A Common Core Branding Problem or Implementation Problem?

With current actions having the governor of Louisiana filing suit against the Federal government over the Common Core State Standards and poll after poll showing new data on public perceptions regarding the standards themselves, the name Common Core, and just about everything else related to CCSS, it is no wonder that we aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

It is only going to get louder, as we get closer to the November elections, as we see candidate campaigning against (and a few for, I suppose) Common Core. Just ask the state superintendent in Arizona about the impact of the CCSS issue.

In today’s Waterbury RepublicanAmerican, Bruno Matarazzo has an interesting piece on how the topic is playing out in a true-blue state like Connecticut, a state that, back in the 1990s, was once a beacon for high educational standards. There, the issue is playing out through an Independent candidate for governor and growing concerns about the linkages between the standards and how new assessments will be used in high-stakes ways, such as teacher eval.

As Connecticut is a former stomping ground for dear ol’ Eduflack, I offered a little perspective to Matarazzo for his piece. Important for Connecticut, but also relevant for dozens of other states grappling with Common Core implementation issues. As Matarazzo writes:

PATRICK RICCARDS, THE FORMER DIRECTOR of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now and current director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said Common Core has a branding problem; the standards themselves are not bad. He said supporters of Common Core have done a poor job of demonstrating why a common set of education standards across the country is needed.

Riccards said supporters also forget the emotional impact the topic of education can have on an entire community, from parents to the town gadfly. People don’t want to be made to feel the way they were educated as children was wrong, he said.

“You don’t win that fight with facts and figures, you win that by winning hearts,” Riccards said.

The problem with the state’s rollout is that it wanted to accomplish too much in too little time. Even before Common Core was implemented, a new computerized assessment pilot program was launched and a new teacher evaluation format was introduced.

Riccards said the gold standard in Common Core implementation was Kentucky, which rolled it out over four years and waited until it was complete to begin working on its own assessment test that was tied to the new standards.

Rebranding Common Core and holding town hall meetings to inform the community about the standards won’t help quell the fears of people concerned about the standards, Riccards said. What Connecticut needs to do, he suggested, is focus solely on Common Core implementation and make it sure it’s done right because the state only has one chance.

“If Connecticut screws this up, there’s no going back and doing it over,” Riccards said.

There are no do-overs when it comes to Common Core implementation. In an era of instant gratification, we need to really put the time in with regard to instruction, professional development, curricular materials, and the like before we worry about how the test scores are going to be applied.

 

“Take Me or Leave Me”

It looks like we won’t “Light My Candle” in Trumbull, Connecticut.  Last week, the principal at Trumbull High School canceled the school’s Thespian Society’s plans to perform the musical Rent.  Principal Marc Guarino has the final say in such decisions, so spiked the students’ decision to put on the award-winning musical.

The reason was content.  Guess some see the topics of AIDS and drug use as being controversial.  And it is, if this were the 1990s.  Let’s not forget that the students were performing the “school edition” of the musical, one that has been done at high schools across the country.
Trumbull High’s students put together a peaceful resistance to the decision.  They organized.  They collected a petition with more than 1,500 signatures on it.  They took it to the board of education.  Ultimately, the board backed the principal’s decision, saying it was on him.
It made its way to Trumbull’s “first selectman,” the Connecticut equivalent of a mayor.  The selectmen punted as well.  But they offered that this kids could look to do it as part of a youth community theater effort in the summer.  Since the schools had no control over such productions, it seemed like a “safe” option in the face of growing community concern for the censorship.  Unfortunately, no one checked with the youth group, who now says it won’t quite work for them either (and would have excluded a number of the intended castmates).
Why is all this important?  First, we should all see the importance of the arts in high school, particularly if it engenders the interest and support that this intended production has generated.  Second, we should applaud these kids for looking to take on such a challenging musical, and for recognizing the significance of such a performance.  Third, we should be proud that these kids refused to roll over and fought for what they believed in and what was important to them.  And finally, we should again be disappointed in the reaction of the adults in the process.
As someone who did high school theater many moons ago, I can say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my K-12 career.  I thoroughly enjoyed being on stage, being part of a cast that was really a family, and putting all the hard work into the process.
As a school board member, one of my proudest moments was seeing our high school put on a performance of Les Miserables.  It was a terrific show, a favorite of mine, and the quality rivaled a professional production.
We should be doing more to encourage students to pursue their interests and get involved.  Again, this was the school version of Rent.  And this was Connecticut, hardly an area that lacks some progressive thinking.
Kudos to the kids for sticking to their objectives and having their voices heard.  But sorry that we have to face this sort of censorship and objections at the end of 2013.

Eduflack Yack – Vallas and Licensure

As we head into August, Eduflack is launching a new feature — a new Podcast called “Eduflack Yack.”  A couple of times a week, I’ll opine on the education issues of the day.  Sometimes it’ll be on a topic written about on the site; sometimes it will just be a topic that deserving a little rant. But every time we will try go against the grain and take a different look at the issue.
Give it a listen.