Category Archives: Politics of Education

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading

Should an Ivy League Business School Train Education Leaders? Why Not?

Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.

In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)

But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education. 

Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT. Via Wikimedia user Nick Allen.

Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets? 

A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.  Continue reading

Stop Saying “At Least We’re Not Mississippi”: A Q&A With Rachel Canter of Mississippi First

There’s a tired trope in Southern states: “At least we’re not Mississippi.” The implication is that while one’s state may be underperforming on some measure — poverty, rates of uninsured, education outcomes, etc. — Mississippi can always be counted on to look worse. 

Having grown up, taught school, and worked in education policy across the South my whole life (but not in Mississippi), I’ve heard this statement plenty. I heard it as recently as this fall at a conference, leveled by a national thought leader who ought to know better. 

Last spring, Bellwether released “Education in the American South,” a data-filled report which highlighted, among other things, how the national education reform conversation has largely bypassed the South — a conclusion bolstered by the persistence of this Mississippi myth.

Here’s the thing: While many of us look down our noses, Mississippi has been working hard — and it’s been paying off. In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, Mississippi was the only state to see improvements in reading and had the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading and math. Mississippi’s gains have been nearly continuous over the last 16 years and mostly unmatched in the region.

To dig more deeply into what’s gone right in Mississippi, I talked to Rachel Canter, longtime Mississippian and co-founder and Executive Director of Mississippi First, an education policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit working to ensure that every Mississippi student has access to excellent schools.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The most recent NAEP results highlight the progress schools and students in MIssissippi have made, but 2019 isn’t the beginning of this story. When did the tide start to turn and why? Continue reading

Media: “Can education improve social mobility in America?” in Medium

Greg Richmond, formerly of Chicago Public Schools and more recently the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, has started an interview series where he asks people three questions (which differ by person) about their work or the education sector.

did one with him that is out this week. We talk about how education is such a powerful a lever for change, what I’ve learned since I was younger, and why data are so often weaponized in this sector. You can read the interview here and some discussion on Twitter here.

This passage, in particular, is sparking some interesting discussion:

A better question might be, “What should choice actually look like for a community?” In affluent communities, parents have lots of different choices, whether it is Montessori, Core Knowledge, or something with a thematic approach. But in low-income communities, the choice is too often the traditional public school, that hasn’t done well for generations, or three different flavors of vanilla. That doesn’t seem like genuine choice.

If we are serious about choice and equity, the choice frame in low-income communities should look like it does in more affluent communities in terms of the range of options that are available to parents — and grounded in what parents in that community desire for their kids. We have not realized that vision in a lot of places and obviously the insane politics around charters don’t make it any easier.

My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.

However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Photo by Paul Morse

As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:

  1. Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
  2. While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
  5. PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.  

Continue reading