Bracing for a Windy City brawl

By Caitlin Emma

(From Politico's Morning Education, September 25, 2013)

BRACING FOR A WINDY CITY BRAWL: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis hasn’t yet decided whether to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his job … but education reformers aren’t waiting for an official announcement. They’re jumping out now to proactively defend the mayor — and bash Lewis. This week, the Illinois branch of Democrats for Education Reform released a poll showing Chicago residents strongly believe Lewis should step down from her union post if she runs for mayor. “She shouldn’t continue to be tone deaf,” said Rebecca Nieves Huffman, DFER’s state director, noting that Lewis will soon embark on teacher contract negotiations with the administration she hopes to replace. Lewis, however, has dismissed concerns about a conflict of interest as ridiculous. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Emma Tai, a spokeswoman for the Karen Lewis Exploratory Committee. “Should she decide to become a candidate for mayor, she will continue to be the same advocate for educators, parents and students that she's always been.”

In recent weeks, DFER-Illinois also released a briefing paper on Emanuel’s education record. In glowing terms, it details the mayor’s push to lengthen the school day, expand access to full-day kindergarten, open more charter schools and launch several new hands-on STEM schools in partnership with businesses such as Cisco, IBM and Microsoft. The paper:

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What to ask state candidates about education

With every election and every legislative session, we the voters are responsible for getting the schools we want for Washington’s students, writes guest columnist Lisa Macfarlane.

By Lisa Macfarlane

(From the Seattle Times, September 21, 2014)

EVERY candidate lists education as a top issue, so how do you find out who shares your values about opportunity and equity in Washington state schools? How do you tell whether a candidate has the leadership qualities to help change the education conversation in Olympia?

When candidates show up at your door or when you have a chance to ask a question at a forum, ask what was most important to them when their children were in school. Chances are it was that their kids had great teachers every year, in a safe place and left school with every opportunity to succeed. Parents desperately want that for their kids.

Then ask the candidates what they would do to ensure that each and every child gets those same opportunities. And finally, ask them how they propose to pay for the improvements our state schools need.

Heaven knows change is needed. It has been more than two years since the state Supreme Court ruled in the case that the Legislature has failed to fund the expanded definition of basic education that it adopted in 2010. Now, the court is holding the state in contempt for its ongoing violation of its constitutional duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children.”

That is the “paramount duty” of the state, as written in the state’s Constitution, and it is a duty that is not being honored.

Current legislators are the only ones who can solve the funding problem because they write the state budget, but they certainly are not the only ones who created the mess. Every legislator and governor who has served in the last 30 years shares some of the blame, as they forced local taxpayers to pay an ever-increasing share of the state’s obligation with inequitable and undependable special school levies.

With every election and every legislative session, we the voters are responsible for getting the schools we want for Washington’s students. If we want more opportunities for each and every child, then we must insist on them.

As a former juvenile court public defender, I feel a fierce urgency to do better, much better, by the children who are growing up in our region.

Ask legislators to make policy and funding decisions based on what is best for our students, rather than letting stand the preferences of special interests that have been woven into existing state policies.

Ask the candidates how they would amply provide for the education of our children — and how they would do so without cutting early learning and higher education. Ask the candidates whether they would avoid cutting the social services that families need to thrive and children need to come to school ready to learn.

According to the nonprofit Thrive by Five, less than four percent of public investment in education and child development occurs during the first three years — the time when children’s brains grow the fastest and the most.

At the other end of the educational ladder, career and technical schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities open doors of opportunity for Washington residents, and help drive our 21st-century economy.

Unfortunately, the state has shifted the cost of public higher education onto students. In 1990, the state covered 82 percent of what it cost the University of Washington to educate an undergraduate; in 2014, it will cover just 30 percent.

The state’s representatives, senators and governor are facing a brutally difficult legislative session. They need the voters’ help and our engagement. Fixing the finance system for state schools when the underlying tax structure is broken will be impossible without strong public support. Voters need to elect legislators who can educate and persuade the public that public schools are an essential and urgently needed investment.

What the state does not need is a revenue patch-job from legislators that ends up on the ballot and is rejected by voters. What will the Supreme Court do then? Hold the voters in contempt?

More is possible. It is time to raise the public’s ambitions and investments for the sake of our children, their futures and the future of our democracy.

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Court should appoint a K-12 “special master”

By Lisa Macfarlane

(From The Olympian, September 14, 2014)

It has been more than two years since the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision declared that legislators are violating the state constitution by underfunding public schools.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Court held a hearing Sept.3rd and asked the Legislature and governor to show why they should not be held in contempt of court for the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional duty to public school children.

A state lawyer made a plea for more time. That makes sense if there were evidence that legislators are any closer to enacting and funding a plan now than they have ever been, but that does not appear to be the case.

The Legislature has been deadlocked. Democrats have shown no inclination to increase education funding by cutting other state services. Republicans have shown no inclination to increase taxes.

Unfortunately, this year’s revenue projections show there won't be enough money to maintain the existing budget, let alone the several billion additional dollars needed to fully fund the legislature’s own definition of basic education.

On Thursday, the news broke that the Washington Supreme Court is holding the state in contempt for violating the Court’s January 2014 order. They held off imposing sanctions, none of which will solve the underlying political problem.

Most of the possible sanctions suggested by the plaintiffs would impact thousands of people who are not to blame for decades of state underfunding of our public schools.

There is another, better way. While the Court "can't engage in active dialogue with other branches of government", it can -- and should -- appoint a special master who can act as a bridge-builder who helps shape a remedy that can both pass the Legislature and meet our constitutional obligation to schools.

The appointment of a special master is a well-established practice in complex cases, and the Court included the prospect in its 2012 ruling when it wisely decided to retain jurisdiction.

For a special master to be successful, legislators must acknowledge the Court's obligation to uphold the sanctity of the state constitution. They also need to acknowledge that much of the problem is their own fault as well as the fault of more than 30 years of bad decisions by governors and legislators who came before them.

Just as legislators must respect the Court's involvement, the Court must acknowledge that they cannot write a budget or pass laws. The heart of the problem is the lack of public enthusiasm for major changes in school funding policies. Most voters do not seem bothered by the inequities and inadequacies found unacceptable by the Court.

The success of a special master will also depend on the freedom he or she has to develop a plan based on what is best for our students rather than the preferences of special interests that have been woven into existing state policies.

While the Court is limited to ruling on what is brought before it, a special master would have a broader view of the state's obligations.

Education is the state's "paramount" duty, but not its only duty. Education policies and funding must take into consideration the effect they have on higher education, early learning, and the social services that children need in order to learn.

The Court must act to uphold the constitution and protect the rights of our children. Appointing a special master who will "foster dialogue and cooperation in reaching a goal shared by all Washingtonians" is still the best option.

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Long Beach educators discuss reform during panel discussion

By Nadra Nittle

(From the Long Beach Press Telegram, July 30, 2014)

The achievement gap. Teacher input. Parent engagement.

Local educators, among them Long Beach Unified Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser, weighed in on these issues and more during a panel discussion, “Education Reform in a Post-Vergara World,” held Wednesday at The Grand Long Beach.

Organized by California Democrats for Education Reform — a new statewide group chaired by school reformer Steve Barr in partnership with Joe Boyd, former executive director of the Teacher Association of Long Beach — the discussion featured Steinhauser, Barr and TALB President Virginia Torres as panelists, with Boyd as moderator and school board members, educators and other community members as special guests.

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Time to take action to fix charter schools in Michigan

By Harrison Blackmond

(From the Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2014)

The Free Press’ recent investigation into Michigan’s charter schools brought to the forefront what we in the education community have been talking about for years: accountability, oversight and quality.

The Free Press unearthed some chilling facts about the state of education in Michigan, and it’s time to take action to address what isn’t working.

Charter schools in Michigan and across the country are essential options that give students and their parents the opportunity to choose an educational path that best fits their needs. But, as we’ve seen in the report, they are far from perfect.

To me, the mandate is clear: We need to improve our charter schools.

Charter authorizers, mostly universities, play a huge role behind the scenes but often escape notice when things go downhill. It is the authorizers’ job to decide which charter schools get to open and which do not. It’s time to bring them into the spotlight, because there is too much at stake if the blame for Michigan’s charter woes falls on the wrong shoulders.

In 2011, when legislators introduced the bill that ultimately removed the cap on charters, my organization, Democrats for Education Reform, along with EdTrust Midwest, the Detroit Regional Chamber, StudentsFirst, and Excellent Schools Detroit, tried to convince lawmakers that charter authorizers need incentives to ensure that they grant charters only to schools with management companies that have excellent track records.

Unfortunately, charter authorizers and others fought hard to keep that language out. They won, and now we are all facing the consequences.

Given the current environment, it’s no wonder proven charter operators such as Rocketship and KIPP seem to avoid opening schools in Michigan.

Our charter schools have done some amazing things: They inspire teachers, empower great administrators, and most important, produce incredible outcomes for students. With good management companies and proper oversight, charter schools can provide kids with an extraordinary educational experience.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) regularly updates its guiding principles and standards to help authorizers maintain “responsible oversight of charter schools by ensuring that schools have both the autonomy to which they are entitled and the public accountability for which they are responsible.”

NACSA’s guidelines clearly encourage the consistent involvement of authorizers in the charters they approve. But in Michigan, it seems many of our authorizers disappear until it’s time to renew a school’s contract, leaving it to languish without proper quality controls — and it’s the kids who suffer as a result.

We should encourage charter authorizers to play a bigger role in the life cycles of the schools they create.

By establishing real accountability benchmarks and visible evaluative policies, they can ensure new schools have the support and guidance needed to give their students the best education possible. By thoroughly investigating the management companies that seek to open schools in Michigan, they can make the state a national model for charter school quality.

In turn, the Michigan Department of Education must take a more active role in overseeing the state’s authorizers.

A simple strategy like that used in Minnesota, where charter authorizers are evaluated by the state every five years, would be an effective way to ensure oversight across all channels.

It’s not too late to demand increased accountability from charter schools, and increased visibility from charter authorizers. Every child deserves an excellent education from a great school — charter or district — with the quality controls necessary to make that possible.

Harrison Blackmond is state director of Democrats for Education Reform Michigan.

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