The Wonkathon edition

On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright discuss the Department of Education’s guidance on transgender rights, Jay Mathews’s call for new ways to measure student success under ESSA, and their favorite Wonkathon submissions. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern explains the varying success of private schools in Milwaukee.

Amber's Research Minute

Michael R. Ford and Fredrik O. Andersson, "Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program," Policy Studies Journal (May 2016).

John Thompson

Back in April, Mike Petrilli criticized the way that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigates racial disparities in school suspension rates. Mike seemed to support the use of data to inform policy making, though he opposed the OCR’s form of data-driven accountability. That is constructive, but his charge against the OCR—blaming it for problems that have been decades in the making—is not.

For support, Mike cites an OCR complaint against Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) that was recently settled. He writes:

At the heart of the federal case was the fact that African American students are 62 percent more likely to be given in-school suspensions in Oklahoma City than are white students.

That was it. As far as I can tell, nobody found instances of black youngsters being penalized more harshly than white kids for the same infractions….In Oklahoma City, African Americans are three times likelier to live in poverty than are whites. We should be surprised that Oklahoma City’s racial disparity in school discipline rates isn’t larger.

So now Oklahoma City will suspend fewer students, putting student learning and safety at risk, because nobody was willing to challenge the federal government’s questionable...

Over the weekend, I attended a performance of the Tony-winning show All the Way, whose title political junkies (or readers of a certain age) will know refers to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 presidential campaign. The play was entertaining and enlightening, depicting President Johnson as a funnier, more likable Frank Underwood—with the salty language and some of the paranoid tendencies of Richard Nixon.

What I found most fascinating, though, was its treatment of detractors of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—most notably Johnson’s mentor turned political opponent, arch-segregationist Senator Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia. The wise and amiable “Uncle Dick” knew that he and his fellow southern Democrats couldn’t attack civil rights head on. In one scene, he tells a handful of his compatriots that, instead of playing to type as rednecks and defenders of brutal racism, they have to make their argument on Constitutional grounds. The refrain of his speeches became, “This bill is an assault on the states and on our Constitution.”

That came to mind on Monday when I had the chance to ask former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the mounting controversy over implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—a sixth- or seventh-generation descendant of L.B.J.’s...

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a full committee hearing titled “ESSA Implementation in States and School Districts: Perspectives from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” the first of a series of oversight hearings on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chairman Lamar Alexander delivered an opening statement to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and asked Secretary King two rounds of questions. What follows is the transcript of these talks.

Of particular interest to those of us at Fordham (besides the very important back-and-forth about the appropriate federal role in education and the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches) is the issue of flexibility around eighth-grade math assessments for advanced students. That is addressed toward the end of the transcript.


Senator Alexander Opening Statement

Mr. Secretary, as you know, I urged the president to nominate an education secretary because I thought it was important to have a confirmed secretary accountable to the United States Senate when the department was implementing the new law fixing No Child Left Behind.

You have sworn to discharge your duties faithfully. That is your oath of office, and...

Policy wonks and political prognosticators have begun to forecast the collateral damage that is apt to follow if Donald Trump manages—in spite of himself, and notwithstanding his Wisconsin setback—to win the Republican nomination, damaging not only GOP prospects for retrieving the White House but also the party’s odds of prevailing in innumerable races for Congress and for state (and even local) leadership. Following in the wake of those generally dire prognostications are early conjectures about the policy shifts that may ensue in sundry realms both international and domestic if Democrats are positioned to chart the future course.

For education reformers parsing this prospect, it’s useful first to recall the many worthy changes that followed the GOP’s 2010 sweep of a galaxy of state and federal offices (obviously omitting the one that’s ovular). Though nothing in the list below is (from my perspective) perfect, it’s hard to picture many—perhaps any—of these things happening had Republicans not been in positions of influence:

  • New assessments in most states, geared to higher academic standards and featuring higher “cut scores” that correspond more accurately and honestly to the actual demands of college, career, and international competitiveness
  • Accelerating the spread of school choice, both the public version (typically
  • ...

Even a careful observer of education policy could wonder, “Who’s actually in charge of public schooling?” That is, at which level of government does the buck stop?

The long shadow cast by NCLB and all of the attention paid to ESSA might convince you that the feds are in control. We also know from experience, though, that local school boards and superintendents make the lion’s share of key decisions. And aren’t state departments and boards of education also important?

It gets even more confusing when there are public disagreements between these different government entities. States and districts routinely quarrel about funding levels. There’s a battle now in Illinois about local and state oversight of charters. In Michigan, there’s a clash over a new state body that could exert control over Detroit’s schools. Uncle Sam infamously got involved in Common Core, which raised state and local hackles galore. Thanks to Pierce, there are also the constitutional rights of parents limiting the authority of all levels of government. The list goes on and on.

The simple (if messy) answer to the basic question of who’s in charge is this: no one and everyone. Like much else in our constitutional system, powers are distributed in a layer-cake or marble-cake...

This report from Public Impact describes an unusual $55 million school turnaround effort in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools called Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation). Despite its sizable price tag, the project offers lessons for funders, district leaders, and anyone else taking on the tough work of overhauling low-performing schools—as spelled out in this examination of outcomes at the project’s two-year midway point.

Launched in 2012–13, L.I.F.T. is an effort led and largely funded by a group of donors working in partnership with the district to raise the graduation rate at West Charlotte High School and improve performance at select feeder schools. The project’s initial investment group, led by local foundations, pledged an astonishing $40.5 million to the effort during its planning phase; corporate sponsors, individual donors, and federal School Improvement Grants and Title I dollars have funded the rest. Project reforms center on four areas: time, talent, technology, and parent and community engagement. This has included implementing extended learning in select schools and opening a credit recovery high school, as well as issuing hiring bonuses, revamping the district’s hiring calendar, and realizing “Opportunity Culture”—an initiative through which teachers teach more students for more pay. Laptops have been...

This piece was first published on the education blog of The 74 Million.

William Phillis, the director of a lobbying group for Ohio’s school systems, recently stated in his daily email blast: “Our public school district is operated in accordance with federal, state and local regulations by citizens elected by the community....Traditional public schools epitomize the way democracy should work.” The email then went on to criticize charters for having self-appointed governing boards.

Setting aside charter boards for a moment, let’s consider the statement: Traditional public schools epitomize the way democracy should work. To quote tennis legend John McEnroe, “You can’t be serious.”

As observers of American politics would quickly point out, elections at any level of government aren’t perfect. One common concern in representative democracy is electoral participation. Approximately 40–50 percent of the electorate actually votes in midterm congressional races, and roughly 60 percent vote in presidential elections.

With only half of adults voting in some of these races, many have expressed concerns about the vibrancy of American citizenship.

But in comparison to school board races, national elections are veritable models of participatory democracy. In the fall of 2013, I calculated turnout rates in Franklin...

Editor's note: This post was first published on Flypaper on July 21, 2015.

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I...

I’ve dedicated a big part of my career to expanding school choice. I think it’s the right thing to do for kids, families, educators, neighborhoods, civil society, and much else. In fact, I’m convinced that years from now, students of history will be scandalized to learn that we used to have a K–12 system defined by one government provider in each geographic area.

“Do you mean,” they’ll ask, “that kids were actually assigned to schools based on home address, even if those schools were persistently underperforming?”

But probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last fifteen years—the reason why school choice progress moves so slowly—is this: An education system without school choice makes perfect sense from the point of view of central administrators.

In fact, the district-based system (a single public sector operator of schools) that we’ve had for the last century is extraordinarily rational when viewed from above. A city has lots of kids, and those kids need to be educated. A central schooling authority will take care of it.

The central authority looks at a map and partitions the city into similarly populated sections, each with its own “neighborhood school.” For simplicity’s sake, those schools can be named...