Education

School Choice, It’s Common Sense?Installment 2: New Policy Networks Emerge

Johnston High School, in Austin, Texas was the first school in the state to be closed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).  The closure and subsequent repurposing as Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus is an opportunity to witness the intersection of market-based reforms, racial identity, community history, gentrification, community organizing and educational decision making.  The confluence of macro political and economic forces cannot be ignored when examining the intersection of public school policy and private interests due to their impact in shaping individual and organizational perspectives (Kamat, 2004 p. 156).

This case of how IDEA, a privately owned public charter school, with significant institutional support, was met with resistance from the community it was reputed to serve, provides a unique opportunity to examine how a diverse group of individuals organized and acted on both sides of the issue.  In particular, this case of community resistance and ultimately vindication demonstrates the democratic possibilities when communities are faced with state directed take overs and other top-down school reforms we will undoubtedly see under the Devos regime.

Background on School Choice in Texas

Texas, like Washington D.C., embarked on its own efforts toward reform during the 1980s.  Texas Governor Mark White, pressured by business interests, appointed Electronic Data Systems founder Ross Perot to chair a special committee on education (Cuban, 2010).  Their report, eventually signed into law as House Bill 72, instituted “no pass no play,” and included new education objectives and standards, required achievement testing, equalized district funding from the state, referenced charter schools, and strengthened top-down accountability measures (Cuban, 2010).  The appointment of Texas business leaders to the helm of education reform echo similar trends in tailoring education to the “needs of the state” dating back to the early 1900’s (Kliebard, 1987, p. 99).  The economic interest of the state benefits from the common sense that students should be prepared for employment and self-sufficiency.

New policy networks include alliances between the business community or chamber of commerce, legislators, think tanks, educational philanthropy, and school regulatory commissions.  Policy shifts over time in Texas represent a movement toward market based reforms like an increased emphasis on competition through the expansion of charter school organizations associated with new policy networks (Debray, et al., 2007; Anderson & Donchik, 2014).  New policy networks contribute to the inception, promotion, and ultimately legislation which benefit privately run public charter schools like IDEA.

The history of IDEA Public Schools dates back to 1998 when two Teach For America alumni, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, founded an after school program in Donna, Texas.  In 2000 the state granted the Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement (IDEA) a school charter.  The following should serve then as no surprise when an IDEA administrator Mx. Bishop shares,

Understanding more how the private sector can be a more constructive partner in helping address issues of equity, race, social justice, including education, but also affordable housing, and the revitalization of distressed communities. I just thought there was a lot more that the private sector could do…. I became aware of IDEA Public Schools when I was a staff member in the Texas legislature… I had a meeting with the CEO Tom, identifying, basically find legislative ways to improve equity in funding for public charter schools.  (Interview 14, 2015)

This quote illustrates the articulation of discourses on equity and revitalization with the private sector.  This resonates with the propensity of neoliberal economic policy “…to bring education, along with other public sectors, in lines with the goal of capital accumulation and managerial governance and administration” (Lipman, 2011, p.  14).

A Closer Look at the Influence of New Policy Networks

According to and AISD Trustee, Mx. Holbrook, the vetting process for IDEA Public School’s contract with Austin ISD spanned one year (Interview 7, 2015).  However, Austin ISD identified IDEA Public Schools as a potential partner during the initial reconstitution of Johnston High School in 2008.  To be fair, there is some evidence as to the efficacy of in-district public charter school collaboration, the good sense of cooperation found in the common sense of school choice (Gulosino, & Lubienski, 2011).  However, this partnership warrants further examination due to the influence New Policy Networks appear to play in facilitating the process (Debray-Pelot et. al, 2007).

In 2008 AISD asked for assistance from the Texas High School Project which is an arm of Communities Foundation of Texas, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.   According to their website, Communities Foundation of Texas started in 1953 in Dallas through the efforts of various business and civic leaders.  Contributions of land and charitable gifts built the organization, and a tax law change created a larger incentive for contributors to donate to community charities rather than private charities.  In the sixties the foundation expanded its scope and began focusing on free enterprise stating, “Though times have changed, the Institute’s mission remains the same – to offer education and training for today’s entrepreneurs” (CFT, 2016).

The Texas High School Project was launched in 2004 in order to “create meaningful change for Texas students. By strategically connecting the diverse stakeholders committed to this cause — from legislators and funders to business and civic groups to school administrators and teachers — Educate Texas is leveraging the power of collaboration, bringing together resources and expertise” (CFT 2, 2016).  In addition to helping schools with redesign initiatives the group was successful in bringing 20 Charter Management Organizations to scale and invested thirty-five million in capital, “to achieve tenfold growth and maximize the alliance’s statewide impact” (CFT 2, 2016).  The emphasis on small schools and technocratic solutions to education challenges are some of the hallmarks of both the Gates and Dell foundations (Debray-Pelot Et. al, 2007; Burch, 2009).  The partners helped AISD find entities that met the criteria of open enrollment, governance, capacity, technical assistance, cost, and external partnerships.

The resulting document of recommendations made specific mention of IDEA Public Schools as a potential partnering entity should they be willing to convert their state charter to a district charter conversion based on IDEA’s connections to external partnerships (AISD September 22, 2008).

To be continued in Installment 3.

 

 

Advertisements
Standard
Education

Venture Philanthropy’s Policy Influence

The emergence of venture philanthropy and new policy networks wrestles away educational expertise from colleges of education and educators placing it instead in the hands of business, advocacy, and law experts (Scott, 2009).  Scott (2009) posits their arguments around frustration with the slow pace of growth of charter schools that are closing the achievement gap, specifically for racial minorities.  Arguing the charter school movement will ultimately improve public schools as well, groups like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are aggressively investing time and money into private programs, think tanks, and schools.  The Gates Foundation is particularly influential donating over eighty million dollars nationally (Dillon, 2007).  Funding a variety of research grants, school choice organizations, and foundations such as The New Schools Venture Fund, the Gates Foundation shapes federal policy to the point where Dianne Ravitch (2006) regarded Bill Gates as the country’s true superintendent.

The Turnaround Challenge: Why America’s best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools, by the Gates Foundation funded Mass Insight Education and Research (MIER), I argue, both influences federal language and perpetuates the claim that public schools are a failure.  According to the report:

The state must not only support the capacity of outside providers to assist with turnaround (or lead the process); it must create the structures and policies necessary to ensure that single providers act as systems integrators, coordinating the roles and contributions of other collaborating partners (see the graphic on page 85). Turnaround partners can include non-profit and for profit organizations, professional associations, and colleges and universities. In addition, an important role of any partner serving the “systems integrator” role in turnaround schools is establishing strong connections with social service providers and agencies, which tend to play strong, visible roles in the communities served by chronically under-performing schools. (Mass Insight, 2007, p. 78)

One of the key provisions of the MIER report is the concept of a high-poverty, high-performance (HPHP) zone that schools can theoretically create.  The report concedes that, “There are very few HPHP schools and they are likely to mitigate, but not erase, the effects of poverty” (MI, 2007, p. 26).  Despite this concession, the report proposes it can identify the “DNA” of these schools thus making it replicable at “scale”.  It continues by outlining nine, deficit based “risk-factors” of poverty.  Risk-factors are turned into “design-elements” for systemic change that will lead to increased performance on standardized tests.  The report believes public schools have been ineffectual because the reforms have been too mild and therefore not able to affect student growth.  Page 29 reads, “Poverty’s Force Comes in Three Mutually-Reinforcing Forms” and labels students of poverty and their families “at-risk” over a striking graphic of a hurricane approaching the Eastern Seaboard.

The 100 page “supplement” to this 116 page report includes an entire section on poverty titled Poverty’s “Perfect Storm” Impact on Learning and the Implications for School Design: Three Colliding Factors = A Hurricane of Challenges (MI b, 2007, p. 74).  The message MIER is sending is clear.  Schools have failed to address any of the nine factors outlined and therefore need more radical approaches from outside of the school system, what MIER terms “whole school reform”.  Additionally, the use of the hurricane metaphor subliminally reinforces two false claims. First, that poverty is a natural disaster rather than a result of social and class construction.  Second, it reinforces the crisis motif that continues to permeate the discussion of school reform with RTT today.  MIER positions the HPHP model as a “New-World” model departing from the “Old-World” model:  “HPHP schools do not try to solve the problem of poverty, nor do they use it as an excuse for lower achievement. They do respond with innovative strategies that acknowledge and address the daily disturbances caused by student mobility, learning deficits, disruptive behavior, neighborhood crises, and a host of other poverty related circumstances. They start with the premise that their students can learn at a high standard, and then they do whatever is necessary to remove barriers to learning as well as create new paths for students to pursue achievement” (MI, 2007 p. 30). Not only does MI promote their strategy as “New” and thus progressive, but also then position their critics as in opposition to progress through maintaining the status-quo.

While acknowledging poverty creates circumstances that disturb learning, MIER asserts HPHP schools remove barriers to learning without actually addressing problem of poverty.  These new paths for students to pursue achievement, admittedly circumvent the root cause yet simultaneously reinforce the rhetoric that “Old-World” schools both fail to address poverty, and also use poverty to excuse their failure.  According to Thomas (2011) addressing only the achievement gap serves to further script and narrow the child’s school experience.  Rather than using the classroom to create agents of social change it is actually these “New-World” ideas that serve to protect the status quo of structural and class inequalities (Thomas, 2011).

Examination of the MIER report’s authors and contributors finds broad ideological underpinnings that make for unlikely partnerships.  The compelling discourses contained in the report appear to come from a strikingly divers group of people and organizations.  Three of the reports four authors have experience in consulting and business backgrounds.  One author studied education history at Oxford and is an expert in standards-based curriculum.  The contributors include managers, consultants, private and public business leaders, private and public college professors, think tanks with both conservative and liberal leanings, economists, public officials from SEA’s, state governors, and middle and High School administrators.  Broad political, market, and advocacy forces have aligned behind this report and others like it propelling the growth of charter schools and choice movements along with shaping the federal mandates of RTT.

… Schools serving the disadvantaged have far more pressure to improve performance than more affluent neighborhoods with less minority presence. The current community based resource model, even with supplementary funding from SIGs and RTT, inhibit access to a meaningful education experience for students born into poverty (Thomas, 2011). Housing discrimination is highly linked to educational outcomes. Segregated housing linked to segregated schools diminishes minority’s achievement (Orfield, 2013). Even when schools are integrated, reliance on standardized achievement test outcomes stratify students resulting in tracts (Thomas, 2011). Typically white students are found in the upper academic AP classes where they find lower student to teacher ratios, the most capable teachers with regard to content knowledge, and richer curriculum (Thomas, 2011). Title I schools and lower academic tracts become narrow test prep academies where typically novice teachers adopt strategies from academic coaches known to increase aggregate performance on particular tested learning objectives. The resulting narrowed curriculum adversely limits the scope and depth of curriculum minority students come into contact with and additionally, creates resistance in the students based on less authentic relationships with their teachers. According to Tienken and Zhao, (2013) in effort to meet AYP goals, schools serving minority students engage in many counterproductive measures to raise test scores that actually serve to widen the educational opportunity gap with respect to their white peers.

In particular school choice is increasingly stratifying the racial makeup of schools. Research suggests strong evidence that color blind school choice initiatives have increased racial segregation in the US (Scott & Wells, 2013). These schools tend to have longer hours, strict behavioral standards, contractual obligations for families and dress codes (Scott, 2009). These groups not only limit enrollment through these measures but influence attrition with strict discipline policies (Scott, 2009). Public schools however are bound to serve each student yet there is no flexibility in comparing achievement outcomes.

SIGs and RTT serve to provide cultural masking of inequity, promoting myths of freedom and equality through school choice and common core standards. Business interests continue to shape education policy, reaping the benefits of a workforce customized to their liking without paying their share of taxes. The think tanks and philanthropies people like Bill Gates support become tax shelters ensuring business does not pay their share. These groups then influence policy as seen in MIER (2007) exploiting the equity gap that exists in schools to promote a diverse cadre of goals.

Ultimately minority students will continue to suffer from poverty and inequality while think-tanks and the FDOE publish reports about the progress of a few HPHP schools. We will miss yet another chance to move from a scripted classroom experience for minority students, to an authentically situated individual experience where students become agents of social change in the classroom. Children of color can then enact a new social vision rather than continue to be enacted upon by those with power and money claiming to see well. As the UNESCO (2014) report proposes, we cannot create sustainable changes unless we change our actions and thinking. By continuing to rely of standardized test scores and the influence of business and policy entrepreneurs the education reform movement changes neither. RTT and SIGs do little to enact agency at the local school level and continue to splinter and marginalize young minority children while purporting to be their saving grace.

Standard