Monthly Archives: May 2014

Who are “Democrats for Education Reform”?

Jan Resseger is the former chair of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education, and she has a blog post linking to a very insightful infographic on the organization “Democrats for Education Reform,” the group behind the “Camp Philos” education reform meeting in Lake Placid this week.

The graphic can be found here, and it comes courtesy of Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education.  The short version is that, far from being a genuine organization of members of the Democratic party with ideas about education reform, it is a lobbying group designed to influence the policy choices of Democratic party politicians and which has taken huge sums of money from the same interests that have lobbied for aggressive charter expansion, curtailing teacher unions and assessing teachers  based on test scores.  While Democrats such as California’s Gloria Romero and New York’s Joel Klein have been prominent in the organization, it is extremely clear that on education, they are firmly allied with the pro-testing and pro-privatization forces that have been trying to drive education “reform” further and further away from schools as a locally democratic institution.  DFER is largely the creation of Whitney Tilson, founder of hedge fund T2 Partners, who was quoted in this New York Times article about the tenure of Joel Klein:

Charter schools, explained Whitney Tilson, the founder of T2 Partners and one of their most ardent supporters, are the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives. For one thing, they can change lives permanently, not just help people get by from day to day. For another, he said, “hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”

I’ve looked at that quote from several different angles: And assuming that it only unfortunately suggests an effort to turn schools into a profit stream, it staggering misconstrues why education costs what it costs.  If Tilson meant that a hedge fund can take a small investment in a charter school and turn it into a “large amount of capital” in the form of educated adults, the idea still misses why non-charter schools often need to spend more money to be in compliance with offering an appropriate education to ALL students in their zoned schools.  Charter schools’ cost “savings” frequently come from refusing or simply weeding out students who need more intensive and expensive interventions to succeed at school.  That’s a bit like praising the economy of a car manufacturer who gets permission to build cars without seatbelts.

It is also emblematic of the age we live in: groups across the spectrum adopt “brands” that can pass a very cursory glance, but which fall apart after more scrutiny.  The lesson?  Always use more scrutiny – whether it is a chain of hedge fund backed charter schools claiming miraculous results or a supposedly grass roots sounding organization that fronts for those same interests.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, DFER, Funding

Education “Reformers” Go to Camp!

If you considered yourself well-informed but have not heard of “Camp Philos,” the education reform retreat in the Lake Placid which is opening today, don’t worry.  Its organizers really are not interested in you, but they have wrapped themselves in some very intellectual and romantic imagery.  Billing itself as a “philosopher’s retreat” modeled after the 19th century meetings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Russell Lowell, with Horatio Woodman, the website claims that the nation’s “thought leaders in education reform” will convene for “fun, fellowship and strategy.”  Governor Andrew Cuomo is the honorary chair of the event where he will be joined by Joe Williams of “Education Reform Now,” a “reform” group mostly dedicated to the spread of charter schools and test based teacher evaluations and with a board populated by hedge fund managers.

ERN has also donated $65,000 to Cuomo’s campaign fund and individual members of its board have donated on their own.  Quelle surprise.

For an entry price of $1000 to $2500 dollars, participants have the advertised opportunity to speak with Louisiana Senator Mary Ladrieu, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali.  Other reports mentioned that film director turned education “thought leader” M. Night Shyamalan would be present as well. A registered guest list is not available as far as I can determine.

However, the schedule of events is available.  A session such as “Living to Tell the Tale: Changing Third-Rail Teacher Policies,” given the known participants, is likely to focus on taking away tenure protections and subjecting teachers to test based evaluations.  Governor Cuomo can certainly address his take on “Adequacy, Fairness and Equity: School Finance in the Age of Austerity” given how his administration has systematically strangled school aid.

While my geeky side is offended by tomorrow morning’s session entitled “Rocketships, Klingons and Tribbles: Charters’ Course to Where No Schools Have Gone Before” (somehow I think Gene Roddenberry would disapprove of being associated with this), I wish I had the money or the connections to be present at “The Next Big Thing: Groundbreaking Approaches to Teacher Preparation”.  This is a subject directly connected to my own work and current livelihood.  So surely, if the “thought leaders” of the country are present to discuss teacher preparation, that must mean the list of invited panelists and discussants will include some lofty names, right?  They must have sought out Sharon Feiman-Nemser.  It would make little sense to host this session of “thought leaders” without the input of Linda Darling-Hammond, obviously.  It would be an appalling oversight for such an event to overlook inviting John I. Goodlad.  The nation’s “thought leaders” in education reform in a self-style philosopher’s retreat talking about teacher preparation without the input of our leading experts on what it takes to learn to teach?  That could never happen.

Even if I had the money to attend, there is a good question if I would even be allowed in.  Diane Ravitch of NYU reported on her blog that three public school teachers and parents from New York tried to sign up for the event and initially were told that there were some openings available.  That changed almost immediately.  One of them, Bianca Tanis of NYS Allies for Public Education, spoke to a retired teacher who reported that she had successfully registered for the event — only to have her registration refunded without explanation.  I am having great doubts that Ralph Waldo Emerson would appreciate having his status utilized for a gathering that has shaped up to be as unpromising as this one.

NYSUT will be present today — on the outside, of course, but at least there will be actual teachers with them.




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Filed under Activism, charter schools, politics, schools

Education Week Blog Piece on Charter School Funding Research

This caught my eye yesterday….for several reasons.

The first is that we can expect the charter school movement to latch on to these findings and demand that more states impose upon cities and communities the sorts of “protections” that were recently added to the New York state budget, which amount to extraordinary favors to well connected and already well funded chains of charter schools.  I have no doubt that there are probably many small, individual charter schools that do excellent work and struggle for sufficient funding, but I also have no doubt that the biggest noise about so-called threats to charters are coming from chains like Success and KIPP that are lavishly funded and connected to hedge fund billionaire patrons.

The second reason is that the blogger actually raised important additional considerations about why charter funding may be lagging on a per pupil basis that is frequently overlooked by lofty news organizations that report on charter school claims.

The issue of charter funding and the disparities that exist may depend on the methods used to do the calculations, though.


“For me, this is not research that’s helping draw good policies,” said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who researchers and evaluates school reforms and education policies.


Drawing on his own previous analyses, Miron contends that charter schools already have a cost advantage that may not be captured and explained by the data.


“Special education and student support services explains most of the difference in funding,” said Miron. “Charters can get a lot more funding, but it would require that they enroll more students with severe and moderate disabilities. They aren’t enrolling these students.”


Other categorical funding, such as that distributed for vocational education, would also bring more funding to charters, should they choose to provide it.


In fact, in his studies, Miron found that charters have a cost advantage, because charters do not have to provide the same services or have the same expenditures as traditional public schools.Transportation costs, for example, are an area in which charters have a funding advantage. Districts are required to provide student transportation while charters are not.

If charter schools do not enroll similar numbers of students on IEPs and English Language Learners, it is entirely reasonable for their funding to be less than entirely public schools that are required to fully serve those populations of students.  Without accounting for that, the report draws a very questionable conclusion using figures that have dogged public discussion of education for years but which are, bluntly, one of my biggest pet peeves.

Which is reason number three: per pupil allocations as a marker of funding and a tool for policy.  It is an easy number to come up with: take the total school budget, divide it by the number of students in the district and voila! You have a per pupil spending figure.

And you have absolutely no idea what that number could possibly mean.

Per pupil costs make for a simple talking point, but a very little thinking effort demonstrates that two children do not necessarily cost the same to educate.  A classroom full of AP students may cost more than a classroom of college preparatory students because the teacher may be a well compensated veteran with a smaller number of students.  A student with an IEP or in ESL classes will cost more than the per pupil average if the district is properly committed to providing them with all legal accommodations, including additional personnel.  A district that is top heavy with administrators will have a higher per pupil cost without necessarily having more resources for the classroom. A district that cannot budget capital improvements will have a higher per pupil cost to cover the price of additional heating fuel in the winter due to leaky windows — and kids will have a harder time concentrating if they remain cold from November to April.

Any policy or discussion of policy that ignores or glosses over these facts is both deceptive and possibly destructive.  Consider vouchers as an example.  Taking a child’s “per pupil” money and handing it over to a new school does not make the old school magically one child less expensive to run.  Until enough children leave that the school starts dismissing staff and faculty or perhaps shuttering a disused wing, the lost student just ups the per pupil average for those who remaining — while skimming money out of the budget.  Meanwhile, the school getting voucher money did not magically become exactly one more student more expensive to run.

Here’s a mantra to repeat to politicians and education reporters: An individual child’s public education is not a product.  It costs what it costs to most effectively assist that child to learn as much as he or she can…and to preserve that child’s joy for learning and curiosity about the world.

Practices that shunt aside students who are harder to accommodate or that cover content while crushing the spirit, may be good for the budget, but we don’t aspire to them for children. So when we are discussing whether or not a particular sector of education is being “underfunded” it is important to consider far more than the sum of money they receive.



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Filed under charter schools, Funding, Media, politics, schools