“Schools In The Crosshairs”: Parent-Trigger Laws Effort Has Become A Stealth Means To Privatize Public Schools
When her dyslexic second-grader landed in a failing public elementary school in Pittsburgh, single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick spotted trouble right away. Her daughter’s teacher spent class time shopping online for clothes while the kids bullied one another. Though other teachers wanted to do right by the kids, their union wouldn’t allow it; teachers were forbidden to offer any extra help to the students outside of class, and because their pay was based on seniority, some of the worst made the most. So despite working two jobs, Fitzpatrick somehow found the time to persuade other parents to sign a petition to turn the school into a nonunion charter. Most teachers joined the effort, perfectly content to give up their union protections. At the new charter school, magic happened. The kids began to get a proper education. Fitzpatrick’s daughter learned to read almost immediately.
It’s an inspiring tale. It’s also fiction—the plot of Won’t Back Down, a film released this fall starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the supermom and Viola Davis as a frustrated teacher who becomes her ally. Like most people, you probably steered clear of this critically panned box-office flop. If so, you didn’t miss much—except a revealing glimpse into the Hollywood-style fantasies of education reformers who believe they have found a new panacea for saving public education: parent-trigger laws.
These laws sound appealingly straightforward. If enough parents sign a petition, they can get their children’s failing school shut down or converted into a charter. Seven states have passed a parent trigger over the last two years; more will likely follow suit next year. These laws are designed to make public education increasingly look like the free marketplace of parental “choice” that reformers long to see. The idea has powerful backers, including conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—best known for “stand your ground” self-defense laws—and the Heartland Institute, famous for challenging climate science. Walden Media, which produced Won’t Back Down and funded the charter—school documentary Waiting for Superman, is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ALEC supporter and prominent Tea Party funder.
Parent trigger is not solely a right-wing cause. Democratic legislatures in Connecticut and California have passed these laws, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has unanimously endorsed them, and 70 percent of Americans view them favorably. The broad support is no surprise. If parents organize to make radical changes to a failing school, who would want to stop them? But many who back parent-trigger laws don’t realize that the effort has become a stealth means to privatize public schools. Heartland, which owns the website theparenttrigger.com, has crafted model legislation for trigger laws that apply to all schools—not just those that are failing. That might be a logical, if drastic, response if public schools were mired in the deep “crisis” that education reformers constantly cite. But they’re not: Many achievement gaps have narrowed substantially, test scores have risen, and high-school completion rates are at all-time highs.
Won’t Back Down, like the movement it champions, begins from the assumption that public schools are a hopeless mess. The complicated challenges that public educators grapple with—severe budget cuts, for instance, or health problems that make learning a particular challenge for low-income kids—are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, parents are exempted from responsibility. Jamie Fitzpatrick never volunteers to help out at the school. She doesn’t go to PTA meetings. She never even asks about her daughter’s homework. Gyllenhaal’s character is not so much a parent as an unhappy customer demanding a better school.
Anyone who believes in the school-reform fairy tale of Won’t Back Down should be required to watch another film released this fall to much less fanfare. This one doesn’t feature an Academy Award winner or a soundtrack of No. 1 hits. Instead, Brooklyn Castle chronicles a messy reality—that of Intermediate School 318, a Brooklyn middle school where 70 percent of the kids live below the poverty line, and where funding cuts are threatening the after-school activities that are key to getting many of them engaged. That includes the school’s chess team, which is, improbably, among the best in the country.
In most respects, I.S. 318 is ordinary. It’s not a magnet school or a charter, but it’s also not failing. The kids featured in Brooklyn Castle have real problems: They struggle with ADHD, asthma, and hunger, and many must work after school to help their parents make ends meet. Teachers and administrators encourage the students, helping to set goals for each one. When after-school programs are endangered, the parents rally, launching a letter–writing campaign to state officials and organizing a walkathon to raise money. I.S. 318, like most public schools, succeeds because the community invests in it, without expecting perfection.
“I think this is a good thing for kids to be exposed to—the idea that truth isn’t quite so simple as right and wrong,” I.S. 318 teacher and chess-team coach Elizabeth Vicary says. “The answers aren’t really clear to anybody.” She’s talking about chess. She could just as well be talking about our entire approach to education. The quest for easy fixes is seductive. But the more we look for Hollywood-style magic bullets, the less we focus on what makes public schools work.
By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 30, 2012
Back in June, Mitt Romney offered an important insight into how he views economic policy.
“[President Obama] wants to hire more government workers,” Romney said. “He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
Right. It’ll “help the American people” just as soon as we allow more layoffs of school teachers and first responders. Why will the economy benefit when these workers are unemployed? Romney never got around to explaining that, but the larger point was hard to miss: the president believes the country would benefit from fewer teacher layoffs; Romney believes the opposite.
At least, that’s the way it seemed. Four months later, in last week’s debate, President Obama brought this up, noting, “Governor Romney doesn’t think we need more teachers. I do.”
The Republican responded, “I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers.” In other words, Romney no longer seems to agree with what he said in June.
That is, until yesterday, when Romney sat down with the editors of the Des Moines Register. As Sam Stein noted, the former governor seemed to revert back to his original stance, arguing, “He wants to hire more school teachers. We all like school teachers. It’s a wonderful thing. Typically, school teachers are hired by states and localities, not by the federal government. But hiring school teachers is not going to raise the growth of the U.S. economy over the next three-to-four years.”
First, as a matter of economic policy, hundreds of thousands of public education jobs have been lost in recent years, and saving those jobs would, in reality, not only help schools, students, families, but also have a meaningful economic impact. Romney resists this, but teaching is a real job involving a real paycheck. Teachers who are employed can then use that paycheck to purchase goods and services, pay bills, make investments, etc. When those teachers are laid off and federal officials let it happen, the workers withdraw from the marketplace and hurt the economy. Why Romney struggles to understand this is unclear.
Second, we rarely see flip-flop-flips, but Romney, if nothing else, is unique.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow, Blog, October 10, 2012
Mitt Romney has absolutely no problem with billionaires buying elections. In fact, had it not been for billionaires’ buying elections, he would not be the Republican nominee for president.
But Romney has a big, big problem with working people’s participating in the political process. Especially teachers.
America’s primary proponent of big money in politics now says that he wants to silence K-12 teachers who pool their resources in order to defend public education for kids whose parents might not be wealthy enough to pay the $39,000 a year it costs to send them to the elite Cranbrook Schools attended by young Willard Mitt.
“We simply can’t have a setting where the teachers unions are able to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interest of the kids. I think it’s a mistake,” the Republican nominee for president of 53 percent of the United States said during an appearance Tuesday with NBC’s Education Nation. “I think we’ve got to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns. It’s the wrong way for us to go.”
So rich in irony, in fact, that it could be the most hypocritical statement uttered by a candidate who has had no trouble scaling the heights of hypocrisy.
If Romney wanted to get money out of politics altogether and replace the current crisis with a system where election campaigns were publicly funded, his comments might be taken seriously. But that’s not the case. Romney just wants “reforms” that silence individuals and organizations that do not share his antipathy for public education.
Romney is troubled that unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association voice political opinions. But he is not troubled by Bain capitalists’ pooling their resources in Super PACs and buying election results.
Indeed, if it had not been for massive spending by the lavishly funded Romney Super PAC “Restore Our Future” on Republican primary season attack ads—which poured tens of millions of dollars into the nasty work of destroying more popular rivals for the nomination.
When he was facing a withering assault by “Restore Our Future” in Iowa, Gingrich said Romney would “buy the election if he could.”
Romney could. And he did.
Never in the history of American presidential elections has so weak and dysfunctional a candidate as Romney been able to hold his own as a presidential contender solely because of the money donated by very wealthy individuals and corporations to the agencies that seek to elect him.
Yet he now attacks teachers who are merely seeking to assure that—in the face of frequently ridiculous and consistently ill-informed media coverage, brutal attacks by so-called “think tanks” and neglect even by Democratic politicians—the voices of supporters of public education are heard when voters are considering the future of public education.
Romney is the most consistently and aggressively anti-union candidate ever to be nominated for the presidency by a major American political party. His disdain for organized labor has been consistently and aggressively stated. He’s an enthusiastic backer of moves to bust public sector unions, he supports so-called “right-to-work” laws as a tool states can use to bust private-sector unions and he wants to do away with guarantees that workers on construction projects are fairly compensated and able to negotiate to keep job sites safe. The Republican platform on which Romney and Paul Ryan are running goes so far as to call for the “enactment of a National Right-to-Work law,” which would effectively undo more the seventy-five years of labor laws in this country.
That’s extremism in the defense not of liberty but of plutocracy. But there are points where Romney goes beyond extremism.
When it comes to the role of teacher unions, the Republican nominee’s royalist tendencies come to the fore. Unable to recognize the absolute absurdity of a nominee who would not be a nominee were it not for the support he has received from billionaires and millionaires seeking to prevent kindergarten teachers from pooling small donations to defend their schools, his message is the modern-day equivalent of the monarch of old sneering at the rabble and ordering his minions, Silence them!
By: John Nichols, The Nation, September 26, 2012
Teachers are heroes, not villains, and it’s time to stop demonizing them.
It has become fashionable to blame all of society’s manifold sins and wickedness on “teachers unions,” as if it were possible to separate these supposedly evil organizations from the dedicated public servants who belong to them. News flash: Collective bargaining is not the problem, and taking that right away from teachers will not fix the schools.
It is true that teachers in Chicago have dug in their heels against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demands for “reform,” some of which are not unreasonable. I’d dig in, too, if I were constantly being lectured by self-righteous crusaders whose knowledge of the inner-city schools crisis comes from a Hollywood movie.
The problems that afflict public education go far beyond what George W. Bush memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” They go beyond whatever measure of institutional sclerosis may be attributed to tenure, beyond the inevitable cases of burnout, beyond the fact that teachers in some jurisdictions actually earn halfway decent salaries.
The fact is that teachers are being saddled with absurdly high expectations. Some studies have shown a correlation between student performance and teacher “effectiveness,” depending how this elusive quality is measured. But there is a whole body of academic literature proving the stronger correlation between student performance and a much more important variable: family income.
Yes, I’m talking about poverty. Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.
According to figures compiled by the College Board, students from families making more than $200,000 score more than 300 points higher on the SAT, on average, than students from families making less than $20,000 a year. There is, in fact, a clear relationship all the way along the scale: Each increment in higher family income translates into points on the test.
Sean Reardon of Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis concluded in a recent study that the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students is actually widening. It is unclear why this might be happening; maybe it is due to increased income inequality, maybe the relationship between income and achievement has somehow become stronger, maybe there is some other reason.
Whatever the cause, our society’s answer seems to be: Beat up the teachers.
The brie-and-chablis “reform” movement would have us believe that most of the teachers in low-income, low-performing schools are incompetent — and, by extension, that most of the teachers in upper-crust schools, where students perform well, are paragons of pedagogical virtue.
But some of the most dedicated and talented teachers I’ve ever met were working in “failing” inner-city schools. And yes, in award-winning schools where, as in Lake Wobegon, “all the children are above average,” I’ve met some unimaginative hacks who should never be allowed near a classroom.
It is reasonable to hold teachers accountable for their performance. But it is not reasonable — or, in the end, productive — to hold them accountable for factors that lie far beyond their control. It is fair to insist that teachers approach their jobs with the assumption that every single child, rich or poor, can succeed. It is not fair to expect teachers to correct all the imbalances and remedy all the pathologies that result from growing inequality in our society.
You didn’t see any of this reality in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the 2010 documentary that argued we should “solve” the education crisis by establishing more charter schools and, of course, stomping the teachers unions. You won’t see it later this month in “Won’t Back Down,” starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, which argues for “parent trigger” laws designed to produce yet more charter schools and yet more teacher-bashing.
I’ve always considered myself an apostate from liberal orthodoxy on the subject of education. I have no fundamental objection to charter schools, as long as they produce results. I believe in the centrality and primacy of public education, but I believe it’s immoral to tell parents, in effect, “Too bad for your kids, but we’ll fix the schools someday.”
But portraying teachers as villains doesn’t help a single child. Ignoring the reasons for the education gap in this country is no way to close it. And there’s a better way to learn about the crisis than going to the movies. Visit a school instead.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 17, 2012
All of us have learned some lessons about the meaning of solidarity from the recent events in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill” was a draconian assault on workers’ rights and unions. He followed this with what the Wisconsin education superintendent called “the greatest state cut to education since the Great Depression” and a host of other cuts that disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. Teachers and other public sector employees, along with parents, students, and many, many others, responded with an outpouring of creative, imaginative, and hope-inspiring acts of solidarity.
Solidarity is parents texting teachers to say: “I heard you were going to Madison today. Do you have space for one more in your car?” Solidarity is firefighters (who are not losing collective bargaining) showing up to parade among thousands of protesters every day for two weeks and sleeping on the cold, hard Capitol floors to keep the “people’s house” open for the people. Solidarity is people from as far away as Egypt and Antarctica calling in donations to Ian’s Pizza to feed protesters. Solidarity is strangers running up and saying “Thank you” as they sign a petition to recall their state senator in the most conservative, affluent white suburbs. Solidarity is when two educators can put together a protest on Wednesday night and get 200 picketers at a biased local news station Friday—after school and in the rain. The experience of being in the midst of something much larger than oneself—and realizing that we can change the world for the better, can take care of each other, can make decisions together—is life changing.
Acts of solidarity are growing in Wisconsin and beyond. And it’s a good thing, because solidarity is what we need to sustain us during the most difficult time for public employees and public education that our country has seen in our lifetimes. As the wealthy—and the politicians they have purchased—continue their pursuit of privilege and privatization, we need to be even more audacious in nurturing solidarity for survival.
The attacks on the public sphere go well beyond Wisconsin. Ohio recently passed a law that prohibits collective bargaining over health care and pensions for all public employees, including police and firefighters. Michigan’s Public Act 4, passed in March, allows the governor to appoint “emergency managers” for municipalities with “fiscal emergencies.” The governors of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and a handful of other states hope to replicate and expand the policies of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who eliminated collective bargaining for state employees six years ago through executive order. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is refusing to negotiate with state workers over health and benefits, and has proposed eliminating tenure, seniority, and civil service protections for teachers while imposing a mandatory test-based evaluation system not subject to collective bargaining.
In Wisconsin, the teachers’ union was a major force in getting people out to the Capitol, with the Madison local, Madison Teachers Inc., taking the lead. After the first day of sick-outs by Madison-area teachers, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council called on 98,000 Wisconsin educators to come to the Capitol to protest the bill on Thursday and Friday instead of going to work. The push and pull between rank-and-file union members and union leaders was evident. Activist locals pushed the state organization, and rank-and-file members pushed their union locals. On the flip side, many union leaders asked reluctant members to go beyond their comfort zones and get active to defend their rights.
When Wisconsin teachers arrived at the Madison Capitol to join the protests, they stepped into a powerful tradition of progressivism and unionism. The signs, T-shirts, and invited speakers made it clear that this wasn’t just about teachers, it was about all workers’ rights. As the days wore on and the fight drew increasing attention in the national media, protesters became increasingly conscious that losing in Wisconsin could be the beginning of the end for workers’ rights across the country. Walker saw the situation the same way. He told a prank caller impersonating billionaire donor David Koch that “Ronald Reagan . . . had one of the most defining moments of his political career . . . when he fired the air traffic controllers. . . . This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”
Walker claimed that “Wisconsin is broke” but, as Michael Moore told protesters at the Capitol: “America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. . . . Today just 400 Americans have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined.” In fact, one of Walker’s first acts as governor was to give the rich another $140 million in tax breaks.
America’s wealth is not only held unequally, it’s also misappropriated in obscene ways. Virtually always ignored in these discussions is the looming U.S. military budget, which was $663.8 billion last year. What would that money and those human resources mean, directed to meeting social needs instead of poured into weapons and conquest, including the endless occupation of Afghanistan? The current crisis is not an “unavoidable” consequence of economic recession; it is a bill come due for bailouts, bombs, and unsustainable inequality. And it’s being delivered to the wrong address by the political servants of the rich.
Cuts Target the Most Vulnerable
Compounding public employees’ anger at the attacks on their jobs and unions has been growing anger about the debilitating budget cuts that destroy public services and make it impossible to serve the needs of students, patients, or clients. Among Wisconsin teachers, this led to a feeling of “What do we have to lose?” Late one night, as dozens of teachers debated whether to organize a sick-out, one teacher remarked: “If one-third of your building calls in sick tomorrow, you’ll have the same staffing levels as you’ll have every day next year after the budget cuts.”
Attacks on the public sector—teachers, nurses, social workers, librarians, public health workers—are in essence attacks on the people they serve: children and those who are sick, elderly, homeless, disabled, jobless, newcomers, or otherwise in need of public services. In state after state, budget cuts have targeted those who are most vulnerable. The racial and class injustice of the cuts is undeniable. In Michigan, proposed cuts would close half the schools in Detroit, where 95 percent of the students are African American, and increase class size to 60. The Texas budget proposal would eliminate pre-K funding for almost 100,000 children. In Washington, cuts would eliminate prenatal and infant medical care for 67,000 poor women and their children. In Wisconsin the governor’s new budget hits Milwaukee Public Schools, the state’s largest and most impoverished district, particularly hard. The proposal denies health care coverage and food stamps to many more people in need, including both documented and undocumented immigrants. It will take away college opportunities from undocumented immigrants by repealing the current state law that allows any resident to pay in-state tuition.
Also in Walker’s proposal is a huge expansion of public support for private schools. Milwaukee would become the first city in the United States in which any child, at any income level, could attend private school (including a religious school) on the public dime. And lest we think that this is a peculiarly Wisconsin development, the spending deal to avert a federal government shutdown in April included a plan to provide federal money to low-income students in Washington, D.C., to attend private schools.
This insistence on spending money on vouchers in the midst of a “fiscal crisis” exposes the right’s real goals. This is the future that many people with great wealth, and those who do their bidding, have in mind: the decimation of workers’ rights to organize, the withering of the public sphere, wealth and power increasingly concentrated at the top. The signs that proclaimed “We are all Wisconsin” and the solidarity protests across the country were a recognition that—as the Industrial Workers of the World said more than 100 years ago—an injury to one is an injury to all.
No doubt, in the face of these increasingly aggressive right-wing attacks, frustration, depression, and even desperation are widespread. But here, too, communities around the country can draw inspiration from Wisconsin. Months after the first protesters marched into the Capitol, people continue to organize. A few examples: massive recall campaigns aimed at state senators who voted to destroy collective bargaining; street protests dogging the governor’s footsteps; teacher “grade-ins” at local malls to make weekend grading and planning visible to the community; campaigns to get out the vote for progressive candidates; a boycott, led by the Wisconsin Firefighters Union, against M&I Bank, whose executives are major funders of Gov. Walker.
Yes, this is no time to despair. There is too much on the line. But it’s also no time to ignore very real and enduring problems in our schools. Too often, the enemies of public education have taken advantage of schools’ failure to meet the needs of disenfranchised communities to push privatization schemes and market reforms—from vouchers to Teach for America—as the alternative. As educators, we need to listen to students’ and parents’ genuine grievances about public schools and respond with engaged imaginations and a determination to work together as school communities. We need to build labor-community alliances that directly confront racial injustice. Moving in that direction were May Day celebrations this year in Wisconsin, New York, and other states built by conscious collaborations of labor and immigrant rights organizations with demands for human rights that were explicitly pro-immigrant, pro-labor, and anti-racist. We need more cross-union alliances like Jobs with Justice to organize the unorganized and support all workers’ rights—here and around the world. We need more teachers’ unions that defend communities as well as contracts, and political organizations that see electoral campaigns as one aspect of a permanent mobilization toward democracy and justice.
As the articles in our cover section point out (see p. 14), we need to equip our students to recognize what’s at stake—and to look at history and current social movements to see what people, including young people, can do when they act on their beliefs. If Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has taught us anything, it’s that what is at stake is the kind of society we want to live in.
These past few months in Wisconsin have shown that consciousness-raising and organizing can be filled with humor, imagination, and a bold spirit of resistance. We can build on this work, deepening and multiplying our expressions of solidarity, to sustain us through this intensely difficult time and propel us toward a more humane and just future.
By: The Editors, Rethinking Schools, June 24, 2011