Secretary of Education designate Betsy DeVos’ crusade against public education (By Wendy Lecker)

First published in the Samford Advocate, Wendy Lecker lays out the details about Secretary of Education designate Betsy DeVosas anti-public education legacy.  Lecker writes;

President-elect Donald Trump selected Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as his candidate for Secretary of Education. The DeVos nomination should alarm anyone who values public education. First, she is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school. More worrisome, she and her husband have been on a 20-plus year crusade to eliminate public education.

Betsy DeVos freely admits that she buys political influence. As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote, DeVos declared that she expects a “return on our investment” in donating to politicians. The return she seeks is the creation a conservative Christian government. For example, DeVos and her husband bankrolled the successful 2004 ballot referendum in Michigan banning gay marriage.

Among the DeVos’ long-running crusades in their quest to “christianize” America is their campaign to destroy public education. DeVos pushed Michigan’s first charter school law in 1993. As noted in a 1996 Detroit Metro Times article, while the DeVos’ ultimate aim was to abolish public education and steer public funds to parochial schools, they knew not to be blatant about that goal. Thus, they chose a vehicle that blurred the lines between public and private schools- a “gateway drug” to privatizing public education: charter schools.

As videos and documents discovered by journalists reveal, the DeVos and their allies crafted a covert strategy to privatize education. They advised focusing on “school choice” rather than mentioning “parochial schools.” They warned against having this campaign seen as a “conservative” idea, thus they sought to enlist those not on their political spectrum, especially people of color. Therefore, they suggested speaking of “choice” as the “civil rights issue” of our time. A central strategy was to relentlessly discredit public schools, linking the smear of public schools with efforts to defund them.

While the DeVos were unsuccessful in pushing school vouchers in Michigan, they were successful in creating an unregulated, wild-west charter sector in Michigan that has destabilized predominately minority school districts in the state. The DeVos’ influence in expanding charter schools, together with an inadequately-funded state school finance system in which “money follows the child” to whichever school she attends, has wreaked havoc on Michigan’s poorest cities.

Detroit is the poster child for the damage the DeVos have done to Michigan’s public schools. As Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press observed, thanks to the DeVos’ efforts to block any regulation, anyone can open a charter school there without regard to quality or qualifications.

It is universally acknowledged that the explosion of charters in Detroit is a major factor in the decline of the city’s public schools. Since schools have many fixed costs, the loss of students does not automatically translate into savings commensurate with the funding schools lose. So, Detroit schools have had to respond to the hemorrhaging of funds by drastically cutting services and staff, and closing schools. And because the charters that replaced public schools are among the lowest performing in the state, children in Detroit have no good “choices.”

This past legislative session, the Devos poured $1.45 million into successfully defeating a bill that would have brought some oversight to Detroit charters.

Betsy DeVos’ nomination brings to the fore some important truths about charter schools. Charter schools are part of a larger strategy to privatize and eliminate public schools. The slogan that charters and choice are part of a “civil rights” agenda is propaganda originating from ultra-conservative white Christian activists disguising their true aims.

In reality, choice in the form of charters increases segregation and devastates community public schools in our most distressed cities. As charters have proliferated in predominately minority cities, children and parents of color bear the brunt of this destruction.

So it is mind-boggling that, in reacting to the DeVos nomination, Jennifer Alexander, head of the charter lobby ConnCAN, described DeVos as a “strong advocate for choice, particularly for our most vulnerable students … And she does seem to be a strong advocate for high standards and accountability for results.”

Seriously? DeVos intentionally decimated education for Michigan’s most vulnerable students and spent millions to block any accountability for charter schools that were abysmal failures by any standard.

Like DeVos, ConnCAN and other charter advocates have spent millions to buy political influence in Connecticut, weakening accountability for and ensuring the expansion of charters, all the while claiming they were advancing “civil rights.” So perhaps Alexander’s doublespeak praise for DeVos is fitting. They seem to be on the same team.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s commentary piece on Betsy Devos at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-DeVos-crusade-against-public-10688037.php

 

Truth From Fiction – The real story about CT School Funding (by Wendy Lecker)

A primer about Connecticut School Funding by Wendy Lecker

In September, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a controversial decision in Connecticut’s long-running school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell.  Judge Moukawsher set forth a very narrow vision of what is needed in public schools in order to provide an adequate education; a vision that contradicted precedent across the United States and precedent from the Connecticut Supreme Court itself.  He essentially ruled that the State need only provide the “bare minimum” of facilities, teachers and instrumentalities of learning, and labeled anything beyond these three narrow categories as “extras;” even though it is accepted that students, especially our neediest students, need much more than that in order to have the opportunity for an adequate education.

Judge Moukawsher did highlight the inequities in wealthy versus poor districts in Connecticut. However, he refused to recognize that the extra resources that districts with needy students require are part of a constitutionally adequate education. Thus, if allowed to stand, his decision would render it impossible to create an equitable school funding system in Connecticut- one that provided adequate resources to our neediest districts. His decision has been appealed by both the State and CCJEF, and will reach the Connecticut Supreme Court in the spring of 2017.

In the meantime, there have been calls for Connecticut to fix its school funding formula before the CCJEF appeal is heard. The loudest calls have been coming from the charter lobby, which wants to seize this opportunity not to create a more just school funding system, but rather to create a system that facilitates the diversion of public dollars intended for public schools to privately managed charter schools.

The charter lobby has usurped the language of equity to advance its cause. It claims that Connecticut needs a system that funds “all public schools the same” and provides the same funding to students “no matter which public school they attend.”  As discussed below, while charter schools are considered public schools, they are by no means the same as traditional, district public schools, and should not be funded at the same level. Any claims about funding “students not schools” or “all public schools equally” should raise alarm bells. These claims lay the groundwork for not only diverting state funding to charter schools, but also diverting local funding to charter schools that are not part of a local district.

In their effort to persuade the public to divert more public funds to privately managed charter schools, the charter lobby will often use questionable statistics. For example, they will compare the $11,000 state allocation to charters to the full amount, including state, local and federal dollars, a local school district spends per pupil on its students.  This false comparison will always make it appear as if charters are being shortchanged. Thus, one must view any charter funding claims with a healthy skepticism.

Successful school finance reform always begins with an assessment of how much education costs, and always entails an increase in funding for public schools.  It is rumored that an organization close to the charter lobby, The Connecticut School Finance Project, is working with Governor Malloy to revamp the school funding system.  Governor Malloy already has stated that this year will be a “lean” budget year. Therefore, it is suspicious that he would choose a year in which he essentially acknowledges he will not provide adequate funding to public schools to engage in school finance reform.  This move should signal that he is not interested in providing adequate resources to public schools, but rather intends to shift money away from public schools to other “choice” schools, such as charters.

Now more than ever it is essential that we all understand some basic principles for school funding in Connecticut.

Some Principles for Connecticut School Funding

The goal of a state school funding system is to ensure that school districts, no matter what the wealth of those districts is, have sufficient resources to provide all students, no matter what the students’ needs and circumstances are, an opportunity for an adequate education.

Resources Necessary for an Adequate Education

Courts in school funding cases across this country have developed a consistent “basket of goods” that are necessary to provide all students the opportunity for an adequate education, including:

  • Reasonable class size;
  • Sufficient number of teachers, administrators and other personnel who are adequately trained and qualified;
  • An expanded platform of services for at-risk students (this usually means additional academic and social supports, including extra learning time, to enable at-risk children to access the same educational opportunities. It can include preK, as preK gives at-risk students additional time to catch up. There are those who advocate universal prek- i.e. prek as its own essential resource. That is a viable approach, although viewing prek as an at-risk intervention may be easier for courts and legislatures to accept)
  • Sufficient resources for children with extraordinary needs;
  • Up-to-date broad curriculum;
  • Adequate facilities;
  • Adequate instrumentalities of learning (books, textbooks, computers, supplies, etc);
  • Safe and orderly environment.

The goal in a state funding system, therefore, is to ensure that all districts are able to provide these essential resources to their students. In order to do so, the state must assess the cost of providing these programs, staff and services, and devise a fair manner in which to allocate funding (state/local share) for these resources.

Note:  In the CCJEF trial court decision, now on appeal, Judge Moukawsher, in contrast to all precedents across the country, limited the notion of adequacy to comprise only sufficient teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning- and he said the state is already providing adequate funding.  He called interventions for at-risk students “extras.” Thus, pursuant to his vision, it would be impossible to construct a funding system that is adequate or equitable.

State Funding Formula:

Many states, including Connecticut, adopt a “foundation” formula.  Most simply, a foundation formula establishes a “foundation amount,” which is supposed to represent the cost of educating a student with no additional or special needs.  The foundation amount is then adjusted to reflect the number of students in a district, and the needs of the students in those districts.  Often the foundation amount is also adjusted to reflect regional costs of education.  Once the amount for a district is calculated, the state must have a mechanism to determine the state share and the local share of paying for this amount.  That mechanism should take into consideration the municipality’s ability to raise revenue, thus the property wealth and income wealth of a municipality.

Foundation Amount:

The accepted method for determining the cost of education is to conduct an education cost study, which would essentially cost out the resources necessary to provide an education that would meet some agreed upon standard.  CCJEF conducted one in 2005, using a nationally known firm, APA.  There are several methodologies for conducting cost studies and many cost studies now use more than one (eg successful school and professional judgment) in order to assure accuracy.  It is essential that whoever conducts this cost study is recognized as an education finance expert and uses and accepted methodology.  These studies can be skewed to suit a political end.

The ECS formula has a foundation amount.  However, the Foundation Amount was never based on the actual cost of education (no cost study was ever done to determine the cost of education- the amount was based on existing spending at the time). Thus, the foundation amount in the ECS formula never represented the true cost of education.

Student Need:

Education cost studies have shown that it costs more to educate certain children than others.  Different children have needs that require additional services that cost money, therefore it costs more to provide them the same educational opportunity as it would children with no additional needs.

Poverty:  Costs studies have shown that it can cost up to twice as much to educate a child living in poverty (social supports, additional learning time, etc). Children who live in deeper poverty (eg, free vs. reduced price lunch) have additional needs that may increase the cost of educating them.  In districts with more concentrated poverty, the costs increase.  Thus, a weighting for poverty must account accurately for the existence of poverty, the intensity of that poverty and the concentration of poverty.  (Criticism of free and reduced price lunch is that it may be inaccurate and it is self–reported. Often students in secondary school do not identify as eligible for FRPL, so the poverty count is artificially lowered).  It is essential not to rely on national estimates or other measures that may not accurately reflect the facts on the ground.

The ECS formula never based its poverty weighting on the actual cost of educating children living in poverty.

English Language Learners (ELL): Costs studies have also shown that it can cost up to twice as much to educate an ELL student as a student with no additional needs.  ELL services are distinct from services provided to children living in poverty, so these weights are NOT interchangeable.

The ELL weight in the ECS formula was never based on cost. Moreover, in 2013, upon the urging of ConnCAN, the legislature completely removed ELL as a weight in the ECS formula.

Students with Disabilities:  It can cost up to four times as much to education a child with disabilities.

The ECS formula never included a weight for students with disabilities.

Regional Cost of Education

Formulas do adjust for the regional cost of education, using several possible methodologies.

State/Local Share: 

In order to accurately assess these shares, the state must have an accurate and reliable and up-to-date measure of a municipality’s property and income wealth.

The ECS measure of a municipality’s local share has been improperly skewed toward property wealth.

Any state school funding system must ensure adequate resources, equitably allocated to school districts.  Moreover, it must provide a predictable and stable source of funding. It is perfectly reasonable to use the framework of the ECS but assure that it is based on the actual cost of educating students with all types of needs, and that it accurately apportions the state and local share.

Why the state funding system should not be “student based”

Over the years, there has been a proposal to institute “student based” funding (called weighted student funding, money follows the child, among other names), in which funding gets assigned to the student no matter what school she attends.  This proposal is often pushed under the guise of equity but really is a mechanism to facilitate funding intended for district schools to go to charter schools.  These proponents claim that it is only fair for all “public schools” to get the same amount.

What this system would do would be to take the ostensible cost of educating a child, including both state and local allocation, and say each child should get this amount no matter which school they attend.  So if the state allocation does not cover the cost, the district in which that school is located would have to pay the rest of that amount.  This would mean, in the case of charter schools, that local districts would have to pay a local contribution for each student attending.  As charters expand, more and more money would be drained directly from local budgets.

There are different types of schools that Connecticut calls “public.”  However, they are not all the same. Charter schools in particular are not at all like district public schools.  They are exempt from many of the regulations and requirements to which district public schools are subject.  They do not need to serve all grade spans, provide all programs, serve all children in a district, etc.  In addition to the sanctioned exemptions, charters in Connecticut often underserve the neediest (ELL, students with disabilities, free lunch) and most expensive students. In addition, charters have always been envisioned as transitory, and if there is proper oversight, their charters can be revoked.  For these and other reasons, courts across the country have rejected claims by charters to obtain an equal level of funding as district public schools.

The State has an obligation to students to provide an adequate education (charters have no constitutional right to an education- children do). As long as a child can attend an adequately funded school in her district, that obligation is satisfied. There is no right for students to choose the “flavor” of school they get. There is no right to have two parallel school systems, public and charter.  In fact, diverting money from a school system that must serve all students (district public schools) to one that need only serve the few undermines the state’s goal and obligation to have a fully funded school system that serves the needs of all students.

In fact, the Connecticut Attorney General has declared recently in a pending federal suit (where charter advocates are attempting to lift any cap on charter expansion) that Connecticut’s district public school system is the vehicle that the legislature has chosen to fulfill the State’s constitutional obligation to provide each child with an adequate education.  The Attorney General pointed out that magnets and charters are “purely statutory vehicles that the General Assembly thus far has authorized and funded as a matter of public policy, and that the General Assembly could discontinue at any time if it were so inclined.” Thus, district public schools fulfill Connecticut’s constitutional obligations, while magnets and charters are voluntary, transitory, purely statutory creations.

Moreover, the Connecticut Attorney General has acknowledged in these same court papers that to fund a system of magnet and charters would be more expensive than providing adequate support to the existing traditional public school system.  Connecticut should, to use the words of the Attorney General, “be devoting the State’s limited resources to improving those schools, as opposed to creating and fully funding a new and more expensive system that is based on charter and magnet schools.”

Charter School Industry – Big Donations to Malloy, No Oversight from Malloy administration

When it comes to Governor Dannel Malloy and the Charter School Industry, two things are certain.  The campaign money from charter school advocates has been flowing into Malloy’s political operation at record levels while Malloy’s administration has been turning a blind eye to the fact that charter schools are violating Connecticut laws, regulations and policies.

Even the most cursory review of state and federal campaign finance reports reveal that Malloy’s pro-charter school agenda continues to pay “big dividends.”

Major donors associated with ConnCAN, the Achievement First charter school chain and other corporate education reform entities have donated in excess of $250,000 to Malloy’s Democratic State Central Committee in just the last four years.

Leading the way has been Jonathan Sackler, a member of both ConnCAN’s and Achievement First’s Board of Directors.  Sackler and his immediate family have given Malloy’s state Democratic committee more than $116,000 and that doesn’t even count the donations that have come from Sackler’s political action committee, the Purdue Pharma PAC.

In addition to Sackler’s money, charter school executives and the financial backers of the corporate education reform movement have donated tens of thousands more to Malloy’s political aspirations in recent years

And as education advocate and school finance expert Wendy Lecker observed in an article last summer, Malloy’s education policies have led to, A void in oversight of charter schools

Writing in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker explained;

One would think that after the scandals involving Connecticut’s two large charter chains, Jumoke and Achievement First, Connecticut’s education officials would finally exert some meaningful oversight over Connecticut’s charter sector.

One would be wrong.

This week the Connecticut Mirror reported that Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell dismissed a complaint against Bridgeport Achievement First, for using uncertified teachers for 47 percent of its staff, in violation of Connecticut statute. Wentzell unilaterally decided that the law allowing complaints against public schools does not apply to charters; despite the fact that charters receive more than $100 million each year in public taxpayer dollars.

Wentzell disregarded the data showing Achievement First’s misdeeds, claiming the State Department of Education (SDE) will wait until the charter comes up for renewal. Wentzell apparently ignored the law allowing her to put a charter on probation “at any time.”

The laissez-faire attitude toward charter schools pervades this administration. At the June 1 State Board of Education meeting, where the board voted to grant waivers to six charters to increase their enrollment beyond the statutory cap, longtime State Board of Education member Joseph Vrabely stated that when it comes to charter oversight, “we operate in the dark” until the renewal process.

While SDE closes its eyes, the complaints against charters pile up. Last week, students at Achievement First’s Amistad High School in New Haven staged a mass walkout to protest racial insensitivity and harsh discipline. They might have also protested the abominable graduation rate which, counting attrition since ninth grade, was 53 percent in 2015 — well below New Haven’s.

Amistad is one of the schools granted an enrollment increase waiver on June 1; supposedly based on Amistad’s academic performance (a 53-percent graduation rate?). Recommending the increase, SDE declared that Amistad draws 100 percent of its students from New Haven. However, the New Haven Independent, in reporting the walkout story, noted “(a)t 10:20, students who live in Bridgeport went inside after they were told they would not be allowed to board buses home if they didn’t.” Indeed, students told reporter Paul Bass that half of Amistad students come from Bridgeport every day. Is anyone at SDE minding the store?

Students have well-founded complaints about Amistad’s discipline practices. While suspensions statewide decreased from 2010 through 2015, they skyrocketed at Amistad, from 302 to 1,307 suspensions. There were more suspensions in 2014-15 than there were students, who numbered 984. During that five-year period, enrollment increased by about 25 percent, while suspensions more than quadrupled.

Other charters granted enrollment expansion waivers on June 1 also have deplorable suspension rates. Bridgeport’s Achievement First had 1,641 suspensions, almost double the number of students, 977, in 2014-15. The number of suspensions more than tripled since 2010-11, when there were 456, and 409 students.

Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport, operating for just one year, had 154 suspensions, outpacing its enrollment of 127 students. Great Oaks received the waiver for the largest increase in seats. Explaining the basis for exceeding the statutory cap, Linabury stated that there was a strict focus on the school’s performance.

Apparently SDE does not consider abusive discipline worth investigating. It should. A recent UCLA report found that nationwide, suspensions lead to dropouts, costing more than $46 billion in lost tax revenue and other social costs.

SDE admitted that, academically, Great Oaks performs well below the state average, and worse than Bridgeport, its host district. Yet SDE still recommended Great Oaks for an increase, which the board rubber-stamped.

Beyond its appalling lack of oversight, SDE made blatant misrepresentations in its quest to expand charters. SDE’s CFO, Kathleen Demsey, declared that before these charters opened, “local approval and support” were required. For Great Oaks and another school granted a statutory increase, Stamford Charter School for Excellence, that statement is false. The public and the local boards of education opposed these charters.

Some state board members feigned dismay that there was ample funding for charter increases while the state slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from vo-tech, magnets and public schools. They then approved the enrollment increases, without any investigation into discipline abuses, uncertified teachers or other misdeeds.

The members declared it would be unfair not to expand enrollment because the charters already held the lotteries for these seats. When asked why the charters held lotteries for seats before they were even approved, SDE again abdicated responsibility, claiming SDE has no say over charter lotteries.

With billions of dollars and student well-being at stake, Connecticut’s children and taxpayers deserve better than officials who sit idly by while charter schools call all the shots.

Judge botched rulings on education policy by Wendy Lecker

Education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker returns to the recent CCJEF v. Rell legal decision in her weekend piece in the Stamford Advocate.  You can read and comment on her piece at:  http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Judge-botched-rulings-on-education-9945947.php

Judge botched rulings on education policy by Wendy Lecker

In issuing his decision in the CCJEF school-funding case last month, Judge Thomas Moukawsher claimed he was faithfully following the dictates of the Connecticut Supreme Court. However, it is clear that the judge ignored a major warning by our highest court: that the judiciary is “ill-equipped” to deal with educational policy matters. Nowhere is this disregard of the court’s warning more evident than in Moukawsher’s rulings on high school and teacher evaluation. In these rulings, the judge contravened the mountain of academic and experiential evidence showing that what he proposes is dead wrong.

First, the judge declared that Connecticut should institute standardized high school exit exams. The judge decided that because Connecticut does not have “rational” and “verifiable” high school standards, meaning standards measured by a high school exit exam, Connecticut diplomas for students in poor districts are “patronizing and illusory.” He concluded that the cure for this problem is standardized, “objective” exams that students must pass to graduate.

In pushing this proposal, the judge relied heavily on one defense witness, Dr. Eric Hanushek, a witness whose testimony has been flatly rejected in school funding cases across the country. Hanushek claimed that Massachusetts’ status as the “education leader” in the country was a result of instituting an exit exam.

Had the judge examined the evidence, however, he would have discovered that Massachusetts’ high school exit exam has increased dropout rates for the state’s most vulnerable students. In fact, as the New America Foundation reported, decades of research on exit exams nationwide show two things: students are not any better off with exit exams, and exit exams have a disproportionately negative impact on the graduation rates of poor students and students of color. That is why the trend among states is to drop exit exams. Exit exams would widen the graduation gap in Connecticut.

Again, had the judge examined the evidence, he would have also learned that the actual major factor in Massachusetts’ improvement was the very measure he refused to order Connecticut to implement: school finance reform that dramatically increased the amount of school funding statewide. No fewer than three studies have shown that increasing school funding significantly improved student achievement in Massachusetts. Recent major studies confirmed those findings nationwide, demonstrating that school finance reform has the most profound positive impact among poor students.

The judge also missed the mark by a wide margin in his ruling on teacher evaluations; which again he insisted be “rational and “verifiable” from his unstudied perspective. Anyone who has been paying attention to education matters the past few years has surely noticed the understandable uproar over the attempt to rate teachers based on student standardized test score “growth.”

Experts across the country confirm, as the American Statistical Association pointed out, that a teacher has a tiny effect on the variance in student test scores: from 1 percent to 14 percent. Thus, it is now widely understood that any system that attempts to rate teachers on student test scores, or the “growth” in student test scores, is about as “rational” and “verifiable” as a coin toss.

Courts that have actually examined the evidence on systems that rate teachers on student test scores have rejected these systems. Last year, a court in New Mexico issued a temporary injunction barring the use of test scores in that state’s teacher evaluation system. And in April, a court in New York ruled that a teacher’s rating based on her students’ “growth” scores — the foundation of New York’s teacher evaluation system — was “arbitrary and capricious;” the opposite of “rational” and “verifiable.”

Yet despite the reams of evidence debunking the use of student growth scores in evaluating teachers, and despite these two court rulings, Judge Moukawsher insisted that rating teachers on student “growth” scores would satisfy his demand that Connecticut’s system for hiring, firing, evaluating and compensating teachers be “rational” and “verifiable.” His ruling defies the evidence and logic.

These and all of the judge’s other rulings are now being appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court by both sides: the state and the CCJEF plaintiffs. One can only hope that that our highest court will steer this case back on course, away from these ill-advised educational policy rulings and toward a proper finding that the state is failing to provide our poorest schools with adequate funding and is consequently failing to safeguard the educational rights of our most vulnerable children.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.  Her column  can be found at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Judge-botched-rulings-on-education-9945947.php

More about the extremely disappointing CCJEF v. Rell ruling by Wendy Lecker

The mass media was quick to fixate on the one “positive” element of the recent CCJEF v. Rell school funding lawsuit ruling, missing the many series problems associated with decision.

In her first piece, Problems with the CCJEF Decision – Will equity without adequacy be enough to help Connecticut’s neediest children?, education advocate and Hearst Media Group columnist Wendy Lecker looked at the school finance portion of the judge’s action.  Here, in Demanding more in elementary schools, she looks at some of the education policy elements of the ruling.

This piece first appeared in the Stamford Advocate.  You can read and comment on the original at:  http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Demanding-more-in-elementary-schools-9242568.php

More about the extremely disappointing CCJEF v. Rell ruling by Wendy Lecker

As noted in my previous column, CCJEF trial judge Thomas Moukawsher refused to order the state to ensure adequate resources in schools, though determining constitutional adequacy was his responsibility. By contrast, the judge freely issued sweeping directives regarding educational policy.

The judge issued far-reaching orders involving elementary and high school education and teacher evaluations. He also aired abhorrent views toward children with disabilities, which several commentators already addressed.

This column addresses his orders regarding elementary education. I will address the others in subsequent columns.

Moukawsher observed that the educational disparities in secondary school begin in elementary school. (He actually acknowledged that they begin before elementary school, but declined to rule that preschool is essential.)

Moukawsher’s “fix” for elementary school was to order the state to define elementary education as being “primarily related to developing basic literacy and numeracy skills needed for secondary school.”

Most of us understand that to thrive in secondary school, children must develop skills beyond basic numeracy and literacy. From an early age, children must develop the ability to think critically, creatively and independently.

There is no real division among brain functions — cognitive, social and motor — so they all must be developed in concert. As neuroscientist Adele Diamond observed, “a human being is not just an intellect or just a body … we ignore any of those dimensions at our peril in … educating children.”

However, Moukawsher ruled that elementary school should concern itself with basic literacy and numeracy skills. Moreover, he demanded that this definition have “force,” “substantial consequences” and be “verifiable” — code for high-stakes statewide standardized elementary school exit exams.

The judge’s myopic focus was emphasized by his suggestion for giving the required definition “force.” He declared that the state definition “might gain some heft, for example, if the rest of school stopped for students who leave third grade without basic literacy skills. School for them might be focused solely on acquiring those skills. Eighth-grade testing would have to show they have acquired those skills before they move on to secondary school. This would give the schools four school years to fix the problem for most children.”

Many children who do not score well on standardized tests are poor and experience stress in their lives that inhibits learning. Others are just learning English. Others have disabilities. Any lag in reading does not mean a child cannot think at grade level or beyond. Moreover, many low-income children have limited exposure to the wide variety of experiences their more affluent peers enjoy. Yet Moukawsher’s prescription for “fixing” them is to limit their education to reading instruction. No art, music, physical education, social studies, science, drama, or field trips. This “solution” will leave our neediest children further behind developmentally.

Moukawsher’s proposal not only threatens to hinder development for our neediest children. It is not even an effective way to teach reading.

As Wheelock College’s Diane Levin explains, children cannot learn to read in a vacuum. The more children can make associations between words and their experiences, the better readers they become. Exposure to wide-ranging subjects and activities is part of learning to read. It is especially crucial for disadvantaged children, who may have limited life experiences outside school.

Moreover, learning to read requires engagement. Children must see the value of reading and writing in helping them get better at something that they like to do.

The Kansas Supreme Court understood this concept when it ordered that Kansas must ensure a host of programs as part of a constitutionally adequate education. The court recognized that “modern schools … have sought to aid students whose individual circumstances … diminish their ability to learn. Some examples … are programs providing breakfast or lunch, pre-school or after school programs, all day kindergarten, field trips, or even theater, band, or athletic endeavors, all which broaden one’s base of association such that it may spark inquiry, acceptance, or, otherwise, give purpose to the pursuit of an education.”

What type of education is necessary for Connecticut’s children? Should we merely try pouring words into their heads? Or should we heed what modern science reveals about how children learn and ensure that every child, not matter what her circumstance, has the opportunity to learn basic and complex skills, so that she can develop into a responsible citizen?

Judge Moukawsher opted for the former, constricted view — one that experts know fails to accomplish even his meager goals.

Connecticut must demand better than that if we want to achieve the equal educational opportunities our constitution demands.

 

Problems with the CCJEF Decision – Will equity without adequacy be enough to help Connecticut’s neediest children? (By Wendy Lecker)

Wendy Lecker, an education advocate, legal expert and Stamford Advocate columnist produces a MUST READ analysis about some of the extremely serious problems associated with the Judge’s recent ruling in the CCJEF v. Rell school funding case.  The article first appeared in the Stamford Advocate and other Hearst newspapers.  You can read and comment on this critically important piece at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Ruling-raises-hope-for-poorest-9212622.php

Wendy Lecker writes;

On Sept. 7, Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued his post-trial decision in Connecticut’s school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell. His sweeping decision covered funding, which I will address here, and education policy, which I will address in my next column.

On the funding front, the outcome was mixed. While the judge did declare Connecticut’s system of distributing school aid unconstitutional, he found that the state was providing adequate funding. In doing so, he redefined constitutional adequacy and ignored the plaintiffs’ overwhelming evidence of resource deficiencies in the CCJEF districts.

At trial, the CCJEF plaintiffs put forth overwhelming evidence of severe resource deficiencies of inputs such as: academic and social intervention for at-risk students and students with special needs; guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, services for English Language Learners, music art and other subjects; and reasonable class size.

Judge Moukawsher’s charge was to examine the resources in the districts at issue in the case and determine whether those resources were so inadequate as to violate Connecticut’s constitution.

However, nowhere in the opinion does the judge systematically look the actual resources present or absent in each district.

Rather, the judge focused only on three types of resources: facilities, instrumentalities of learning, and teachers. He declared that since, in his view, the state provides the “bare minimum,” in these three areas, the plaintiffs did not prove that state funding is constitutionally inadequate.

Moukawsher claimed to base his ruling on the 2010 Connecticut Supreme Court plurality decision allowing the CCJEF case to proceed to trial. He claimed to rely specifically on Justice Richard Palmer’s concurring opinion, which is seen as the controlling opinion.

Moukawsher stated that Palmer limited his focus to those three narrow resources. This is untrue. Palmer acknowledged a much wider range of potential resource deficits, including class size, language instruction, technology, intervention for at-risk students, and a safe and secure learning environment.

Judge Moukawsher’s decision ignored the wide range of essential educational resources absent in the CCJEF districts. In fact, the judge actually claimed that intervention for at-risk children was an “extra.”

As a result, his ruling does an injustice to the children suffering in those districts.

Moukawsher also attempted to claim Palmer’s definition of a “minimally adequate” education was narrower than the plurality opinion, and that it required only the “bare minimum” of resources.

However, Palmer actually declared that “I perceive no difference between an educational opportunity that is minimally adequate and an educational opportunity that the plurality characterizes as ‘soundly basic.’”

Moukawsher created a bare-bones definition of constitutional adequacy that the Connecticut Supreme Court clearly did not envision.

The one ray of light in this funding decision is Moukawsher’s finding that the state’s system for distributing school aid is unconstitutional. He ruled that “(b)eyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.”

To illustrate Connecticut’s irrational system, Moukawsher cited the legislature’s decision last session to cut school aid for poor districts while providing more aid for wealthy districts. Here, the judge finally acknowledged the severe resource deficits caused by these cuts: of administrators, guidance counselors, kindergarten and special education paraprofessionals, music and athletics, a shortened school year and classes of “29 children per room — rooms where teachers might have a class with one third requiring special education, many of them speaking limited English, and almost all of them working considerably below grade level.”

The judge declared that a system that “allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty.”

The judge gave Connecticut six months to create a new funding system that applies “educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”

The opportunity to craft a new funding system no doubt has the charter lobby champing at the bit to snatch some of that funding intended for Connecticut’s poorest districts. However, the court’s ruling aims to stem the state’s penchant for draining funds from impoverished public school districts. Following the court’s logic, a funding scheme that would allow school aid to flow to a parallel system of privately managed charter schools while leaving poor districts in dire circumstances can also be seen as unconstitutionally irrational.

While not ideal, the CCJEF decision highlights that the needs of students in our poorest districts, not political influence, should drive education funding in Connecticut.

Want to know how a student is doing? Forget the SBAC or SAT test – Ask a teacher

In a recent press release, Governor Dannel Malloy and Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman pontificated about their effort to measure every child, teacher and public school by the score students received on this year’s Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test.

Wyman said,

“These successes are valuable indicators that we are on the right track today, and they position us for a stronger tomorrow.”

However, in the real world, the results from the unfair, inappropriate and discriminatory Common Core SBAC testing scheme is hardly a valuable indicator nor does it suggest we are on the right track to anything other than forcing schools to develop better systems for teaching to the test.

As Connecticut public education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker wrote in a Stamford Advocate in August 2015, instead of looking to an unfair testing scam for guidance about student performance, If you Want to know how a student is doing? Ask a teacher.

Last year, Wendy Lecker wrote;

A friend of mine had a priceless reaction to the specious claim by education reformers that our children need standardized tests so parents can know how they are doing in school. He laughed and said that in 20 years of parent conferences no teacher ever felt the need to pull out his children’s standardized tests to provide an accurate picture of how well they were learning.

Parents have relied on teachers’ assessments to gauge their children’s progress and most have pretty much ignored their children’s standardized test scores. For decades, this approach has served parents and students well. Recent research shows that non-standardized, human assessments of student learning are superior to standardized tests of all kinds.

I have written about the voluminous evidence showing that a high school GPA is the best predictor of college success, and that the SAT and ACT, by contrast, are poor predictors. (http://bit.ly/1K7CNzG)

Even standardized college placement tests, tests ostensibly designed to measure “college readiness,” fail miserably at that task — with real and damaging consequences for students.

College remediation is often used as a weapon by education reformers. Overstating college remediation rates was one of the tactics used by Arne Duncan to foment hysteria about the supposedly sorry state of America’s public schools and justify imposing the Common Core and its accompanying tests nationwide. As retired award-winning New York principal Carol Burris has written, while Duncan and his allies claimed that the college remediation rate is 40 percent, data from the National Center on Education Statistics show that the actual percentage is 20 percent.

Exaggeration is not the only problem with college remediation. Many of the students placed in remedial classes in college do not even belong there.

Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia’s Teachers’ College and her colleagues examined tens of thousands of college entrants and found that one-quarter to one-third of those placed in remedial courses based on standardized placement tests were mis-assigned. These students wrongly placed in remedial classes could have passed a college- level course with a B or better. Moreover, when students are mis-assigned to remedial courses, the likelihood of them dropping out of college increases by eight percentage points. These high-stakes tests produce high-cost errors.

Scott-Clayton and her colleagues found that by incorporating high school grades into the college placement decisions, misplacements were corrected by up to a third, and there was a 10-percentage point increase in the likelihood that those students placed in a college-level course would complete that course with a grade of C or better.

Once again, non-standardized, human assessments of a student’s learning are more helpful than standardized tests.

Some institutions are getting that message. After California’s Long Beach City College began incorporating high school grades into placement decisions, the rate of students who placed into and passed college English quadrupled. The rate for math tripled. Just last month, George Washington University joined the long and growing list of colleges and universities that dropped the requirement for SAT or ACT scores.

These institutions of higher education understand that standardized tests are poor predictors “college readiness” and that high school grades are superior.

Yet too many policymakers cling to the failed strategy of using standardized tests to try to tell us what teachers are much better at telling us. Congress is set to reaffirm the requirement that states administer annual standardized tests, even though the data show that a child who passes one year is very likely to pass the next. Washington, West Virginia and California announced plans to use the not-yet validated and increasingly unpopular SBAC test in its college placement decisions.

California announced this move even as it is considering ceasing the use of SBACs to judge schools. Equally hypocritical, Washington State’s Board of Education just announced that it is lowering the SBAC high school passing score below the “college-ready” level arbitrarily adopted by the SBAC consortium last year.

Amid opt-outs and outrage at the SBACs, Connecticut passed a law replacing the un-validated 11th grade SBAC with the SAT as a required high school test; even though the SAT has been proven to have little predictive value for determining college success.

The key to ensuring and determining college readiness is clearly not high-stakes error-prone standardized tests. If politicians really want to understand how to prepare our children for college, maybe they should try a new — for them- approach and consult experts with a great track record of knowing what makes kids college-ready. Maybe they should ask some teachers.

You can read Wendy Lecker’s full column on the issue at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Want-to-know-how-a-student-is-6431076.php

Education advocates and experts Wendy Lecker and Robert Cotto Jr. discuss Historic CCJEF lawsuit

With the final arguments now completed in the school funding case of CCJEF v. Rell, the judge has five months’ worth of testimony to use when making the critically important decision about whether Connecticut’s school funding formula is unconstitutional.

While the parties will undoubtedly appeal the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court, this case is the pivotal step to force the state of Connecticut to adopt a state education cost sharing formula that ensures that all Connecticut children have access to a quality education.

Click on the video for a 15 minute wrap up of the key issues of the case by education advocates Wendy Lecker and Robert Cotto Jr.

https://youtu.be/kPosbOwofxE

Additional media coverage can be found at:

Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) vs Malloy (and Rell) (Wait, what?)

As Decade-Old Lawsuit Winds Down, Plaintiffs Say Education Is Path to Cure (WNPR)

Lawsuit alleges disparity in school funding (CT Post)

In Closing Arguments, State Acknowledges Challenges But Defends School Financing System (Courant)

CT school funding on trial: 5 key questions facing the judge (CT Mirror)

Drive up education degree is an insult to every student, parent, teacher and taxpayer

In her latest commentary piece, Connecticut education advocate Wendy Lecker explains that latest fade from the corporate education reform industry.  In, A blind acceptance of the robot teacher, Lecker takes on the charter school industry advocates who claim that teachers don’t need all those education and child development courses.  All they need, they say, is a quick, fly-by-night crash course on how to make children sit and succeed at taking standardized tests scores.

Wendy Lecker writes;

Connecticut seems to accept a constricted vision of education for its neediest children that is never imposed on more affluent districts. The most recent example of this disparity is the recent partnership between the New Haven Public Schools and an outfit called Relay Graduate School of Education, to provide alternative certification for would-be teachers.

Relay was founded by representatives of three charter school chains, Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools — chains with a troubling record of suspensions, harsh discipline and attrition. It was founded to train charter school teachers. Relay employs not one professor of education.

The Relay vision of teaching is narrow. Its primary goal is to train teachers to raise test scores. Consequently, Relay focuses on giving its trainees a prepackaged set of “skills” that focus mainly on classroom management and getting students to do what teachers want. The contrast between Relay’s methods and goals and those of existing Connecticut schools of education is stark.

For example, UConn’s teacher education program strives to “establish a safe and positive learning environment” and “promote democratic participation and community. UConn’s core practice principles focus on helping prospective teachers learn to use their professional judgment, and to help students develop into independent thinkers. UConn’s principles help teachers develop “strategies, activities and approaches that are responsive to cultural, linguistic, ability and other student differences,” “plan learning opportunities that teach content through inquiry” and “use knowledge of students as individuals and members of cultural and social groups to inform instruction.” The aim is to help teachers meet students where they are and develop each student’s capabilities.

Relay employs the principles of one of its “star” faculty, Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov. Those principles focus on control and compliance. For instance, Lemov instructs trainees that “(a) sequence that begins with a student unwilling or unable to answer a question ends with that student giving the right answer as often as possible even if they only repeat it.” Even if they only repeat it!

The principles also instruct trainees to “set and defend a high standard of correctness in your classroom” and “control the physical environment to support the specific lesson goal for the day.” Relay’s prescriptive, robotic methods churn out teachers focused on getting students not to think for themselves, but to regurgitate the one “correct” answer.

Relay falsely claims its methods are proven. As University of Washington Professor Kenneth Zeichner has found, there is no peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating the success of Relay Graduate School of Education. In fact, even education reformers have called into question Relay’s methods. Katherine Porter Magee, of the conservative Fordham Institute, criticized one Relay lesson video, noting it “included low-level questions and inadequate wait time, and was generally rushed and superficial.”

Connecticut has several university-based schools of education. Three — Albertus Magnus, Southern Connecticut and Quinnipiac — are in the New Haven area. Yet New Haven partnered with Relay. Why do New Haven’s children, the majority of whom are poor children of color, need teachers trained only to control them, when Connecticut’s schools of education focus on developing children based on their individual needs and strengths?

This partnership must be seen in the larger context of Connecticut’s abandonment of its previous deep commitment to robust teacher training. Connecticut used to be a national model for teacher education. Its BEST program was state-funded and developed by the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) over 15 years, in conjunction with developing the state’s academic standards. CSDE ensured that a robust teacher induction system was designed, implemented, researched and evaluated. The state raised teacher salaries; required, funded and trained experienced teachers as mentors; developed licensing requirements and a staged licensing process; and required ongoing professional development.

Although the successful BEST program was lauded nationwide, Connecticut abandoned BEST, because it was seen as too costly. Apparently, Connecticut’s leaders viewed providing tax subsidies to insurance companies and hedge funds as more worthwhile than investing in Connecticut’s children. Connecticut has also in recent years cut state programs for alternative teacher certification. Thus, the burden and cost of certification increasingly falls to school districts.

At the same time, Connecticut has imposed more mandates on university-based teacher education programs. It is almost as if the state wants to drive existing schools with a proven track record into the ground and replace them with cheap, fly-by-night operations.

Connecticut children deserve teachers who can help them reach their potential, not parrot from canned scripts. They deserve better than teachers trained in five-week Teach for America training programs or quick certification factories such as Relay.

 You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s column at : http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-A-blind-acceptance-of-the-robot-8348106.php

 

A void in oversight of charter schools (By Wendy Lecker)

Surprise!  Connecticut taxpayers are giving privately owned and operated charter schools more than $110 million a year, with little to no oversight.  Meanwhile, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and the Democratic controlled state legislature are implementing the deepest cuts in state history to Connecticut’s public schools.  The budget cuts, along with the inadequate funding allocated for public schools mean Connecticut’s public school students will be getting less, while local property taxpayers will be charged even more.

In another MUST READ piece, public education advocate and columnist Wendy Lecker reports on the void in oversight of Connecticut’s charter schools.

Wendy Lecker writes;

One would think that after the scandals involving Connecticut’s two large charter chains, Jumoke and Achievement First, Connecticut’s education officials would finally exert some meaningful oversight over Connecticut’s charter sector.

One would be wrong.

This week the Connecticut Mirror reported that Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell dismissed a complaint against Bridgeport Achievement First, for using uncertified teachers for 47 percent of its staff, in violation of Connecticut statute. Wentzell unilaterally decided that the law allowing complaints against public schools does not apply to charters; despite the fact that charters receive more than $100 million each year in public taxpayer dollars.

Wentzell disregarded the data showing Achievement First’s misdeeds, claiming the State Department of Education (SDE) will wait until the charter comes up for renewal. Wentzell apparently ignored the law allowing her to put a charter on probation “at any time.”

The laissez-faire attitude toward charter schools pervades this administration. At the June 1 State Board of Education meeting, where the board voted to grant waivers to six charters to increase their enrollment beyond the statutory cap, Mark Linabury, head of SDE’s Choice Bureau, stated that when it comes to charter oversight, “we operate in the dark” until the renewal process.

While SDE closes its eyes, the complaints against charters pile up. Last week, students at Achievement First’s Amistad High School in New Haven staged a mass walkout to protest racial insensitivity and harsh discipline. They might have also protested the abominable graduation rate which, counting attrition since ninth grade, was 53 percent in 2015 — well below New Haven’s.

Amistad is one of the schools granted an enrollment increase waiver on June 1; supposedly based on Amistad’s academic performance (a 53-percent graduation rate?). Recommending the increase, SDE declared that Amistad draws 100 percent of its students from New Haven. However, the New Haven Independent, in reporting the walkout story, noted “(a)t 10:20, students who live in Bridgeport went inside after they were told they would not be allowed to board buses home if they didn’t.” Indeed, students told reporter Paul Bass that half of Amistad students come from Bridgeport every day. Is anyone at SDE minding the store?

Students have well-founded complaints about Amistad’s discipline practices. While suspensions statewide decreased from 2010 through 2015, they skyrocketed at Amistad, from 302 to 1,307 suspensions. There were more suspensions in 2014-15 than there were students, who numbered 984. During that five-year period, enrollment increased by about 25 percent, while suspensions more than quadrupled.

Other charters granted enrollment expansion waivers on June 1 also have deplorable suspension rates. Bridgeport’s Achievement First had 1,641 suspensions, almost double the number of students, 977, in 2014-15. The number of suspensions more than tripled since 2010-11, when there were 456, and 409 students.

Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport, operating for just one year, had 154 suspensions, outpacing its enrollment of 127 students. Great Oaks received the waiver for the largest increase in seats. Explaining the basis for exceeding the statutory cap, Linabury stated that there was a strict focus on the school’s performance.

Apparently SDE does not consider abusive discipline worth investigating. It should. A recent UCLA report found that nationwide, suspensions lead to dropouts, costing more than $46 billion in lost tax revenue and other social costs.

SDE admitted that, academically, Great Oaks performs well below the state average, and worse than Bridgeport, its host district. Yet SDE still recommended Great Oaks for an increase, which the board rubber-stamped.

Beyond its appalling lack of oversight, SDE made blatant misrepresentations in its quest to expand charters. SDE’s CFO Kathleen Dempsey, declared that before these charters opened, “local approval and support” were required. For Great Oaks and another school granted a statutory increase, Stamford Charter School for Excellence, that statement is false. The public and the local boards of education opposed these charters.

Some state board members feigned dismay that there was ample funding for charter increases while the state slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from vo-tech, magnets and public schools. They then approved the enrollment increases, without any investigation into discipline abuses, uncertified teachers or other misdeeds.

The members declared it would be unfair not to expand enrollment because the charters already held the lotteries for these seats. When asked why the charters held lotteries for seats before they were even approved, SDE again abdicated responsibility, claiming SDE has no say over charter lotteries.

With billions of dollars and student well-being at stake, Connecticut’s children and taxpayers deserve better than officials who sit idly by while charter schools call all the shots.

You can read and comment on Wendy Lecker’s original article in the Stamford Advocate at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-A-void-in-oversight-of-charter-7988759.php