Category Archives: Politics of Education

Bellwarians React: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 Billion Donation to Johns Hopkins University

photograph of Michael BloombergEarlier this month, Michael Bloomberg announced a $1.8 billion donation to his alma mater of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to officially make the university “need-blind” forever. The largest donation to an individual college in history, the funds will also support other policies to make the campus more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

Internet and social media erupted with reactions, ranging from excited to skeptical to angry. Bellwarians, including two JHU alumni, took to Salesforce Chatter, our internal social media and collaboration tool, to weigh in. As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree. (More broadly, by maintaining an environment where divergent perspectives are freely expressed, we are able to generate creative solutions to our clients’ problems without falling into pre-baked camps or agendas. It’s something we’re proud of.)

Here are a few quick takes from across the Bellwether team:

Starr Aaron, executive & business systems assistant:

I am pleased to see these efforts. When I was at Hopkins, it was not known as particularly generous with financial aid. Some of the skepticism I’ve witnessed is from classmates who wonder if the money will reach those who need it. Others wonder if Bloomberg is running for President (maybe he is, but he’s been generous a long time). Some are smirking while they remember the time he gave a relatively small amount to “upgrade” all the walkways on campus to brick paths and how the university hopped right to it.

The current tuition is eye-poppingly high — I’ve already warned my own children that if they feel Hopkins-bound, well, good luck with that!

Bonnie O’Keefe, associate partner:

I think the skepticism and anger come from two places. One, a frustration that so many public and private institutions depend on the largesse of billionaires to fulfill what should be essential parts of their mission. Second, the idea that so much money is going to an elite institution where a billionaire has a personal connection — an institution that doesn’t serve the most at-risk students and could operate a lot more equitably with the resources it already has. (Full disclosure: I went to Hopkins for grad school and my husband worked there for several years).

All things being equal, I agree with Michael Bloomberg that alumni should direct donations to financial aid. Especially at highly selective and expensive schools, this seems much more urgent than rec centers or fancy buildings. And Bloomberg has done plenty in education outside JHU, so I don’t think he could be credibly accused of focusing only on his own alma mater. The backlash seems more symbolic of where elite colleges and billionaire philanthropy sit today than anything specifically bad about this particular donation.

Cara Jackson, associate partner:

Students who gain admission to JHU are probably going to succeed in life regardless of which college they choose to attend. And if Bloomberg wanted to target resources to help low-income students access higher education, he’d spend the money at a community college or cover the living expenses of low-income students attending public universities. My (admittedly skeptical) take is that this mainly benefits JHU…which is not to say that Bloomberg wasn’t well-intentioned.

Hailly Korman, senior associate partner:

I think it’s complex and I don’t disagree with anything that folks have raised so far, but it also makes me think about how Bloomberg got so much money in the first place. If we look under the hood, what are the links between the policies and systems that support that kind of wealth accumulation and the things that make low-income families low-income to begin with?

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

Hamilton Education Program Gives D.C. Students a Shot at Performing While Honoring Kennedy’s Dream

Photo courtesy Caity Schneeman, KIPP DC College Preparatory School

Jacqueline Kennedy was a well-known patron of the arts. As first lady, she turned the White House into an “epicenter for artistic performance and expression.” In the East Room, she requested a portable stage be built to host performances, including a series of concerts for young people. According to the JFK Library website: “She understood that to a child, American history can often be a dry and dull affair, and she saw a visit to the President’s House as a chance to spark each child’s interest in the people who made the country what it is today.” The Kennedys’ love of history and the arts was one of the main reasons the proposed National Cultural Center authorized by President Eisenhower in 1958 changed its name to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts after his assassination.

One can imagine First Lady Kennedy smiling down on that very center the morning of September 12, 2018, as dozens of students and chaperones from twenty of Washington, D.C.’s Title 1 high schools enthusiastically participated in a day-long event centered on the life of Alexander Hamilton. (Title 1 public schools serve high percentages of high-poverty children.) She’d probably be pleased to know that a musical based on the life of the “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore and a Scotsman,” who grew up to be “the ten-dollar founding father without a father,” has become a national phenomenon.

Her own education involved the kind of well-rounded experiences with the arts that many low-income kids and children of color lack in America today. But the day’s performances highlighted D.C. schools who work to provide theatre arts opportunities for their students.

Before the main performance of Hamilton by the touring cast, students got their shot at performing original works inspired by the musical thanks to the Hamilton Education Program (HEP). Schools with students interested in performing must select one entrant (single or group) to submit a performance tape for HEP to review. In this case, ten student groups from the 20 schools in attendance were selected to perform. Participating schools are expected to spend several weeks preparing using curriculum materials provided by HEP. Sasha Rolon Pereira, Director of HEP, recalls many late-night email exchanges with teachers and her office in advance of this month’s event.

Danielle Benson, J’niya White, and Lorenzo Johnson represented the KIPP DC College Preparatory School, performing “Valley Forge Song.” Check out this video of their performance from Theater Arts teacher Caity Schneeman:

 

American troops spent the winter of 1777-1778 during the American Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, known as a winter of suffering and rebuilding in brutal conditions. Benson outlined her team’s creative process, including reading about Valley Forge, collecting significant facts about it, and writing an original song lyric: “It’s the winter Valley Forge systematic training regimen, transformed ragged soldiers into better men.” The strong beat of their rap quickly got the crowd involved as students in the audience clapped, cheered, and held up their illuminated phones to encourage the performance. Continue reading

An End to “Must-place” Teachers in LAUSD? Almost.

Last month, a quarter of Los Angeles public schools gained new power over selecting teachers to fill vacancies when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution to establish mutual consent hiring. In most districts, teachers are employees of the district, not the school where they work. What that means is that they can be displaced — losing their position at their school — while still remaining employed by the district. A teacher can be displaced for many reasons, like declining enrollment, changing instructional needs, or generalized dissatisfaction with the teacher’s performance. In many districts, a teacher can remain “displaced” with full salary and benefits indefinitely.

But this is starting to change. Districts are beginning to adopt policies that recognize that teachers who are unable to find new placements after a year should not continue to stay on as fully-paid employees.

Los Angeles’ mutual consent hiring policy requires both teacher and school to agree to a teacher’s placement. This means the districts can no longer place teachers unilaterally or require schools to select from the displaced pool rather than making new hires. As of right now, the policy only covers one quarter of LAUSD schools. The remaining three quarters are still obligated to fill vacancies with displaced teachers, a group which includes those who have been unplaced for more than a year (commonly referred to as the “must-place” teachers).

Nick Melvoin championed this policy as the LAUSD school board vice president. Nick was also a witness in Reed v. State of California, a 2010 California constitutional case that aimed to protect students in underperforming schools from catastrophic teacher layoffs. I worked on Reed as part of the legal team that represented the students, including students at the school where Nick taught. Reed was a precursor to its more famous sibling, Vergara v. State of California, a case that led to a California Supreme Court ruling about the need for establishing “inevitability” when linking an education policy aimed at teachers to a constitutional harm to students.

In the Q&A below, I talk with Nick about what this new policy means for LAUSD’s students and teachers. Conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eight years ago, you and I first met while I was representing students suing LAUSD over disproportionate teacher layoffs in their schools. That included many of the same schools that are now insulated from receiving “must-place” teachers under this new policy — including the school where you taught! That case ultimately settled without clarifying the state’s reverse-seniority layoff laws. Did that experience inform this effort to create a new practice of mutual consent hiring?

Absolutely. Just because litigation isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying. There are two reasons that this policy makes sense. The first and most important one is the impact that this has on children. When I arrived as a teacher at Markham Middle School, I saw a rotating parade of substitutes and learned what that had done to my kids. Some of them didn’t have a history teacher until October, and until then, they were failing interim assessments… History isn’t something you can intuit — someone has to teach you! The administration was going down the list of hundreds of “must-place” teachers, and each one who showed up would leave after a few days. They weren’t the right fit for the school and they didn’t want to be there, but this would go on for months before the school could secure a permanent teacher.

The second reason is that I care about treating teachers as adults and as professionals. I came to the district fresh out of Harvard University, and my classmates were going on to Wall Street and consulting firms. I thought teaching was the most important job in the world, but when I arrived, I was treated like a cog in a machine. Mutual consent is about treating our teachers well and respecting them as professionals who do the most important jobs in the world.

I think that this new policy opens up a new channel for conversation and helps us to move closer to our goal of ensuring that all students in the District have great teachers. Continue reading

Since Janus Isn’t a Simple “Win/Lose,” What Else Are the Justices Deciding?

current U.S. Supreme Court Justices

via Franz Jantzen, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court has yet to announce its decision in Janus v AFSCME, the case that will decide the fate of agency fees — fees paid to unions by non-members to support collective bargaining activities. So while you’re waiting (and studying up on the history of unions using our recently released slide deck), here are three things you need to know about the Court’s decision-making process:

  1. There is a range of possible rulings.

The Supreme Court’s decision is not going to be a simple “win/lose.” While Janus will, in fact, either “win” or “lose” his case, the Court’s written interpretation is what will shape future law and policy. And this written interpretation could be very narrow, quite broad, or fall somewhere in the middle. A very narrow finding, for example, could be to affirm the lower court’s ruling. Under this ruling, nothing would change. On the other end of the spectrum, the Court could go beyond the agency fee question presented in the case and find more broadly that exclusive representation is also unconstitutional.

  1. In its decision, the Court will likely reference a long history of precedents on agency fees and free speech.

The Court has been ruling on the issue of agency fees for decades. Analysts and commentators most frequently cite the 1977 Abood case, which endorsed the current agency-fee arrangement. But there are others cases that could be just as important. For example, the 1968 Pickering v Board of Education case dealt with a teacher who was fired after writing a letter to a local newspaper that was critical of some of his school board’s financial decisions. The Court found in Pickering’s favor that his right to freedom of speech was violated when he was fired for writing this letter. In making its decision, the Court had to balance the interests of Pickering, who was a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, and those of the government (in the case, the school board) as an employer seeking to provide efficient public services. This balancing of interests has become known as the Pickering test.

The Court could apply the Pickering test to Illinois’ law, which would require them to balance the interests of Janus speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern with those of the government as an employer. The Court could find either that the state’s interests as an employer outweigh Janus’ free speech interest (meaning that Janus would lose) or that Janus is speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern and that this free speech interest outweighs the state’s interests as his employer (meaning that Janus would win).

Another case the Court may reference is the 1991 Lenhert v Ferris Faculty Association case, which defined the activities for which unions can compel agency fees from non-members. These activities must 1) be “germane” to collective bargaining, 2) be justified by the government’s interest in maintaining labor peace, and 3) not add to the burdening of free speech.

The Court could decide that agency fees are legal, however it could revisit the definition of the expenses for which unions can charge non-members.

  1. The Court will avoid a constitutional question whenever possible.

Canons of construction are principles that provide guidance to the courts as they interpret statutes. One of these principles is to “first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which [a constitutional] question may be avoided.” In other words, if there is a reasonable interpretation of the statute that does not conflict with the Constitution, the Court will adopt this interpretation.

This could be the case for Janus: The Court could find that there is an equally reasonable interpretation of Illinois’ law that does not raise a First Amendment free speech issue. The Court would have to adopt this interpretation, and Janus would lose.

While the Court’s decision is expected in the coming days, there’s no way to predict what it will be. So in the meantime, check out our deck on the history of unions and the implications of the Janus decision here.