Flypaper

Amy Fagan

Ok, so last week we saw a story or two out of New York describing how the teachers union gave city council members cue cards telling them what questions to ask during a hearing on charter schools. Yes, that definitely makes for an interesting discussion. But a colleague of mine here at Fordham caught something that made us chuckle a bit, with disturbed amusement. Gotham Schools's Flickr page displays some of these actual cue cards. Sadly, slide #6 uses the term "steakholders." That's right. Now granted, someone had penciled it in, and we obviously don't know who. But....if it's true, it's pretty disturbing. I mean, yes there ARE INDEED actual steakholders, as we can see here. But I don't believe that's what the cue-card author was attempting to say.

Cue cards slideshow by Gotham Schools from Flickr...

So there was this report written to help a major US city improve its public schools. Local leaders had gone to Boston to learn about a number of????groundbreaking reforms that had generated????some pretty impressive results. They came back particularly impressed by Boston's new types of schools, well-trained teachers, and well-respected administrators.

The most controversial part of the report was its recommendation to make it easier to fire bad teachers. The report noted that while most of the city's teachers were "faithful, well-educated, and conscientious," "too many ... are incompetent and unfit for their work."

To solve this problem, the report recommended an extended probationary period for new teachers and a tough examination for those who made it through to ensure that all of the city's classrooms were led by highly qualified educators. The report conceded, however, that no written exam could ever fully reflect all of the "essential qualities for successful teaching."

The report was attacked by "organized teachers' groups." "The educational reformers applauded it, but they were as yet too few to muster political support for drastic changes." The report was turned into legislation, which ultimately failed; the city's superintendent remarked: "There is little probability of...

With all of the attention directed toward the DC voucher program, we could be misled into believing that this represents the current and future of the private school choice debate. Not so.

For my money, this story from Cleveland captures the logical--and exciting--next phase of not only choice but also urban education reform.

A few of the city's highest performing charter operators have teamed up with a high-performing Catholic school in an effort to create more great schools and collaboratively tackle issues like human capital. Their motivation? They don't care who runs excellent schools serving poor kids; they just want more of them.

This story is even more intriguing because the consortium is planning to apply for a slice of the $650 million "scale up what works" fund in the stimulus package.

While the ARRA's legislative language forbids using funding for private school vouchers, it doesn't prohibit innovative ideas like this one, where funds would be used to help a team of traditional public, charter public, and private schools create more high-quality seats. As a matter of fact, groups of schools are eligible applicants for this pot of money.

I...

Former DC mayor Anthony Williams and former DC councilman Kevin Chavous channel Malcolm X in a Post op-ed on the DC voucher programs.

We should learn from the legacy of Malcolm X and the civil rights movement. In the long term, let us continue to reform, recalibrate and reenergize our education system. In the short term, however, we cannot afford to lose any more children to bad schooling. We must be willing to allow innovation and creativity to flourish so that all children benefit today. "By any means necessary" is a calling. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a necessary means of educating children who otherwise would be lost; it must be maintained and allowed to flourish.

I've given Arne Duncan and the rest of the Obama Administration a hard time today for its decision to rescind "opportunity scholarships" from 200 needy District of Columbia students. But it's only fair to say that this decision didn't happen in a vacuum. Take a look at this language about D.C. from the Congressional conference report that accompanied the recently passed Omnibus Appropriations Act (it's on page 29 if you want to see for yourself):

The bill includes $54,000,000 for a Federal payment for school improvement, an increase of $13,200,000 over the fiscal year 2008 enacted level. Within this amount, $20,000,000 is for public schools, $20,000,000 is for public charter schools, and $14,000,000 is to provide opportunity scholarships.

Funding provided for the private scholarship program shall be used for currently-enrolled participants rather than new applicants. (Emphasis added.)

Now, these conference reports are non-binding; they don't carry the force of law. But they do express the will of Congress (or, in this case, whoever the weasel was that inserted this language on behalf of the NEA and AFT).

Arne Duncan could have told the Hill to take...

I've already told you that reading this letter will get you worked up, but it will also provide confirmation that Jim Shelton is, indeed, the new head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement. (I speculated as much a month ago; Russo: that's one less big job left to fill.)

For those of us who worked with Secretary of Education Rod Paige to create OII, this turn of events isn't too surprising. We always suspected that a Democratic Administration would embrace most of OII's mission (of promoting charter schools, alternative teacher certification, smart uses of technology, etc.) but would shun vouchers. And so it is.

Maybe it's just as well; school vouchers aren't that "innovative" anyway. In D.C. at least, they merely help poor kids get access to good schools that have been around for a long time. In today's education reform world, that's not enough of a "game-changer." Never mind the difference it makes for several thousand children....

So concluded the Washington Post's editorial page on Saturday with a piece aptly subtitled, "Politics is driving the destruction of the District's school voucher program."??Here's the news:

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision -- made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall -- comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it's clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

Jaypgreene.com has been??plenty more here. But if you really want to get yourself worked up, read this letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Jim Shelton and D.C. deputy mayor Victor Reinoso (both of whom deserve a strong reputation as reformers, which makes the letter all the more sickening) to the affected families. Here's the opening paragraph:

We deeply regret the confusion

...

The Washington Post reports??that Loudoun County, Virginia, is using the federal stimulus funds intended for schools to prop up its county budget:

After hearing that an initial batch of $11.8 million in federal funds would soon arrive in Loudoun County, supervisors slashed $7.3 million from the schools budget. They also made clear that if more federal recovery money flows to schools, schools might be asked to give back an equal amount of county dollars.

In the same article, we're reminded that Secretary Duncan has warned against this kind of "shell game":

"Where we see a state or district operating in bad faith or doing something counter to the president's intent, we're going to come down like a ton of bricks," Duncan said in a March conference call with reporters.

He didn't say "county", of course--this situation is surely complicated by Duncan's lack of direct power over Loudoun County and its purse strings. But he'd better do something before a thousand other counties follow suit.

Update (4:00 pm):??Michele McNeil's terrific Ed Week article??a few weeks back highlights this problem, primarily at the state level - she found potential shell games brewing in California,...

As Eric just reported, Loudoun County is playing games with its stimulus dollars. Specifically, it's asking schools to return county dollars and replacing them with federal dollars, presumably to help plug holes in other areas of the county's budget. The net result is that school spending is staying roughly the same. (Unlike the WaPo, which reported on the story,??I don't see the problem here, but I digress.) While Duncan has warned that these sorts of shenanigans will be dealt with swiftly and harshly, Loudoun's decision might not be such a bad thing.

Duncan made it clear that there were some serious reform strings attached to the stimulus dollars. The county is still using the feds' money and is still subject to those stipulations. But by supplanting instead of supplementing, it's not using the old trick of buying more reform with more money, which is typically how the unions and other status quo supporters have been forced into swallowing it. As Bruce Fuller explains, "[You] need bright, shiny new dollars to assuage skeptical teacher unions to experiment with merit pay." But in this case, the county has now handed Loudoun schools shiny new dollars with...

Nope, no new Department picks to withstand some reform-o-meter treatment, but a dog. A Portuguese water dog, in fact, which will shortly take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We speculated??and we wondered and now we know: Malia and Sasha are getting their puppy at last. They've apparently named him "Bo" after "Bo" Diddley, rock n' roll great. (And (s)he is a present from Senator Ted Kennedy.) Nothing like a little bit of feel good fluff news for an early Monday morning.

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