School Choice, It’s Common Sense?

This blog series, “School Choice, It’s Common Sense?” serves as a counterstory to the current dominant narrative of school choice and neoliberal privatization. Each installment will introduce critical concepts currently being debated in education policy. The series is taken from personal field research conducted over the past two years. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to stimulate a more inclusive dialogue and depict the significance of a democratically run public school board’s expulsion of a privately owned in-district charter school following public pressure and community organizing.
Making the Case:
Overall student achievement is stagnant over the past four years in states like Texas (Weiss, 2015). Urban school districts are increasingly partnering with charter school networks to build their portfolio of schools in the name of meeting accountability measures and improving public education (Levin, 2011). This is observable in urban settings in Texas; therefore understanding how funds are actually being spent is important. In particular, this series will examine one site in Austin ISD, Eastside Memorial High School and the efforts by IDEA Public Charter School and East Austin College Prep to occupy the campus through in-district charters.

Charter schools often adopt similar curriculum and pedagogical practices as traditional public schools thus garnering institutional legitimacy which can act to limit differentiation (Huerta, & Zuckerman, 2009). Wholstetter et al. (2013) cite Christensen and Rainey in asserting charters, through focusing on differentiating themselves, were not innovating new programs as much as repackaging what already existed. Analyzing public school responses to new practices such as marketing demonstrates how public schools are simultaneously adopting business strategies in response to increased market pressures. The diversion of public funds from instruction to private media companies and marketing consultants is an overlooked topic, often overshadowed by discussions on efficiency and achievement. Critically examining the isomorphic tendencies of both public and private governance structures, we begin to tease out substantive from inessential changes (Lubienski, & Lee, 2016).

The current political climate begs the question, why are charter schools able to increase enrollment, further legitimizing the policies promoting their expansion without demonstrating a significant improvement in student outcomes? I argue, one way charter schools are growing is through marketing, advertising, and public relations. Also, charter schools often appeal to notions of good sense including equity, efficiency, and innovation. Finally, their advocacy by way of presidential authority, extends from George H. W. Bush to Barrack Obama and the new policy networks shaping legislation (Frankenberg, & Siegel-Hawley, 2013; Anderson, & Donchik 2014). One question, relevant to the scope of this research, posed by Kahlenberg and Potter (2014) is whether or not charter schools cooperate or compete with regular public schools? Marketing and advertising are one overt way schools compete for students.

The debate in this country about whether the public school, or common school as it was known back in its day, should be treated as a public or private good, spans over a quarter century (Mann, 1848). Scholars provide several frameworks to evaluate the intent and efficacy of education policy (Labaree, 1997; Jencks, 1988). In research conducted for my MA Thesis I coded twenty-four interviews which asked how participants felt about spending public dollars on advertising, and the results were mixed. Some saw it as common sense considering the return on their investment in terms of increasing enrollment, while others perceived this type of spending to be a waste of finite resources in a climate of scarcity and austerity. Another group endorsed their use enthusiastically.
The availability of the information regarding marketing expenditures for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), IDEA Public Charter School (IDEA), and East Austin College Prep (EACP) can all be found on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website. However, there is a lack of uniformity in their filings which is one barrier to accurately measure expenditures which should be addressed in policy with the intent of more easily disseminating the information. Before perceptions can be analyzed we need an accurate picture of actual expenditures in order to improve our understanding of context (Cucchiara, 2016). Figure 1 contains the three most recent years of available data for each school.

Figure 2 depicts these expenditures in terms of per pupil expenses.


The figures above indicate that marketing expenditures are increasing over time. Examining enrollment patterns demonstrate growth for IDEA during this time frame and declining enrollment for AISD and EACP. The decision by AISD to begin formal marketing in 2015 indicates that democratically run public schools are in this case adopting the strategies of the competition in order to recapture students. Increasing competition for students and their accompanying average daily attendance funding play a marked role in shaping school behavior during an age of austerity.
The next installment will trace the history of Johnston High School culminating in the Austin ISD School Boards Decision to partner with IDEA Public School in 2012.
(References are available upon request)


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.


Flo Friends

Hi oh Silver, like my boy Wilbur or that guy David Gilmour

Make it Syd Barrett mi cunyao Garrett, Maurice Clarrette runnin for the Buckeyes

or like how Beastmode trucks guys

on the way to the endzone, and I’m not alone, but alive, strive, derive, arrive at the destination

no preoccupacion, immaculate concepcion, soy chingon

No me voy king rey call me prince royce who rolls with the punches like Churches chicken.

You da Joe Biden

to my Beau Biden

Feet on the ground

we be low ridin

Foghat the day

cuz we slo ridin

receivers in place

with no tight end

got Anne Frank out

there”ll be no hidin

at Bernie Sanders party

he said go right in

Marley told us

no fussin no fightin

we told Franklin

to go kitin

BMXican and TX kin

Farewell to men

we flow sapiens.

You say sapiens I say aliens, salient like sollution, the illusion of choice envelops participation

like Marley say we need mental slavery emancipation,

authentic participation in democracy is too expensive therefore we give a pensive

nod to the right to the left before cowing to the capitalist machine,

where private property is more valuable than any humanbeing

so those that kill feel justified

and we become ossified

with age we trade fact for magic value science over what’s mystic what defies quantification

consumed by investigations into others qualifications and accommodations

we see ability as immovable therefore a nullification of innate talents occurs

and further spurs

our thinking toward rational and national goals based on imperial polls and empirical binary poles

that view the world in black and white

where white is right and black is best expressed over J-Dilla instrumentals

cause the wrongs endured are monumental

and we cant keep runnin away like the Pharcyde

and allow the farce to preside over people like steeples over churches, don’t be a chicken

I rekon we take a stand cause the clock’s tickin no time for finger lickin!


WSJ Letter to the Editor re: Neoliberalism attack

Regarding Paul Peterson’s assertion that The Public Turns Against Teacher Tenure

Our country was founded on the commoditization of public spaces. First natives were exploited for their pelts and lands, soon came timber and agriculture, all on what was once a pristine public space. Peterson’s arguments are a clever dialogical attempt to lead the public in the direction of the full commoditization of, what some would consider the final frontier of yet public space, our school system. A closer look at his arguments reveals flawed assumptions. He touts a recent online survey by The Harvard Program on Education. He breaks down all the facts and figures as ammunition to use against the teacher unions which he characterizes as “bitterly, arguing”. Catering to the ideologues that want to erode the ability of unions so they may impose any labor practice they wish as seen in the maquiladoras along the border when manufacturing jobs were shifted to Mexico after NAFTA, Peterson runs the numbers as evidence that the public is turning against teacher tenure. His flawed logic implies that the public was ever for teacher tenure. Does he have any empirical data from before? Instead he has used the racist concept of the bell curve as the foundation of his, and the neoliberal agenda to weaken the position of public school teachers. It stands to reason that if five categories of grades were given, A-F, the public, colleagues included, would feel obliged to put some teachers in every category, otherwise why would we need a grade system. Later the true aim of their “reform” is revealed when he relates teacher performance to the rise of our GDP. Arguing that tenure should be tied to student performance again only serves the business interest in creating their vision of worker/consumer. Tenure based on standardized test’s outcomes only demonstrate an ability to transfer knowledge. Teaching is about creating the environment and relationships where value can be created. Knowing facts about a standard does not create value.   Facts are only important when seen from the perspective of how do they relate to human life. Simply, knowledge of venom can be used to make poison or medicine; knowledge is not nearly as important as the wisdom and moral character to use knowledge constructively. Teacher tenure is a privilege reserved for those willing to put in the time, day after day on the front lines of education for all, even those without internet access and/or green cards. Rather than hiding behind the names Harvard and Hoover Peterson should reveal his position as an economist promoting the agendas of Eli Broad and Kenneth Griffin, both high donors to Harvard, as they seek to do what they have always done, make money off of someone else’s money. Espousing the virtue of a market that they don’t really believe in as seen in the “too big to fail” derivatives market debacles. Peterson is a political scientist that should stay out of the more pure realm of education.



Walter Crunkite