Category Archives: Politics of Education

Will Newark Schools Continue to Beat the Odds Under Local Control?

As a suburban Jersey girl growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I knew two things about Newark. It was a city with a fine medical university where I had extensive dental work done, and it had a reputation for terrible schools run, at times, by corrupt leadership. Little did I know then that the city where I literally got my smile would one day have education results worth smiling about.

When Bellwether profiled Newark in 2018 for our Eight Cities project, it was because of the city’s approach to school reform and the remarkable gains in student achievement that came as a result. That story ended with a homegrown Superintendent — Roger León — taking the reins of the district as the state promised their return to local control. As of last week, the process of fully returning Newark schools to control of a locally-elected school board is complete. Now that Newarkers have full control over their schools, they have a new challenge: sustaining and building on the success of recent reforms.

Late last week, MarGrady Research confirmed Newark students continue to outperform peers attending similar schools within the state. Researchers define “beat-the-odds” schools as those that produce better state testing results than other schools in New Jersey with similar racial and socioeconomic characteristics. Compared to demographically similar students in urban schools in New Jersey, Newark students beat-the-odds, or exceed expectation, on their exam achievement outcomes.

Echoing similar results three years ago, Newark continues to lead other cities in the percentage of students enrolled in “beat-the-odds” schools. And it’s not even close: Thirty-five percent of Newark students attend beat-the-odds schools; Boston students are second at 20%. Furthermore, nearly 40% of Newark’s African-American students attend beat-the-odds schools – more than double the rate of Boston, where only 19% of African-American students have that opportunity.

One factor which cannot be understated in driving this success is Newark’s implementation of a universal enrollment system. This system allows parents to choose from a diverse set of high-quality public schools, both traditional and charter. Both sectors provide schools where Newark students can succeed: the MarGrady study found 16% of students in traditional district schools were enrolled in beat-the-odds schools. This is about twice the average rate of all 50 cities studied.

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It’s Time For a National Teachers’ Strike

Schools closed in March in order to give federal and state governments the time to implement a public health response to COVID-19. They have failed miserably to do so. With case counts exceeding three million and deaths approaching 150,000, the United States is unique in the world for its near-total abdication of responsibility for its people in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. And now, in the face of rising case numbers, uncontrolled community transmission, and a culture growing increasingly numb to six-figure death rates, people are clamoring for school buildings to reopen

This is an absurd proposition. No teacher should risk their life because the government refuses to address a solvable problem.

Arlington County (VA) signage during COVID-19 outbreak — photo via dmbosstone on Flickr

School districts’ plans for the fall are a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online learning plans —- with heated debate about which approach is best. But this debate is fundamentally misplaced: We do not have a learning problem, we have a public health problem. Schools were closed because the world confronted a lethal and highly transmissible virus with no vaccine and few effective treatments, and that problem still exists.

There was a time, back in March, when doctors and nurses across the country were forced to treat patients without adequate PPE. They protested and they complained, but the few who flat-out refused found themselves out of jobs. What would have happened if they’d all refused? How quickly would the federal government have marshalled its resources and authority to manufacture and distribute all needed PPE if medical professionals decided that without it, they would strike?

Teachers (and other school-based staff) are now facing that same question. What would happen if they simply refused to go into school buildings until the federal government created a school reopening plan aligned with CDC guidance? What if teachers only offered virtual schooling until districts committed to allowing public health experts to guide reopening decisions? Even regions where the virus appears to be “under control” for the moment are always at risk of outbreaks in a country with porous borders. Take Hawaii, for example: It is the most remote population center in the world and it cannot get its infection rates to 0. This is a national problem in need of a national response.

Schools can still plan for instruction using imperfect remote learning models, and teachers will still do their much-needed jobs. But it is time for a national teachers’ strike against in-person programming. No teacher should go back into a school building anywhere in the country until the federal government adopts a meaningful public health plan to address the real problem that we’re all facing: the unchecked spread of a deadly virus.

Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading

Business Organizations Play a Key Role in Education Advocacy Post-COVID

Questions about when and how to reopen schools will have ripple effects for the business sector and broader economy. If schools cannot open at all, or open only part-time or for small groups of students on a rotating basis, adults cannot return to work. Without a workforce, businesses cannot reopen and the economy remains shuttered. As a result, the business community has an especially important role to play in current deliberations about whether and how to reopen schools.

Business advocacy organizations, such as chambers of commerce and business roundtables, are well-suited to engage in these deliberations. These organizations advocate on behalf of policies that ensure students gain the skills, knowledge, and experiences they need to be successful in the current and future economy. This can look like helping to pass legislation requiring computer science coursework or successfully advocating for legislation to improve access to industry-recognized credentials and work-based learning experiences. In light of the current pandemic, business advocacy organizations bring an important voice to the conversation about what schooling could and should look like in the near future.  

What makes these organizations well-suited to engage in these conversations? While there’s limited research examining how the most successful organizations work, my colleagues and I recently completed a report that uncovered three key strengths that the most successful have in common. 

First, business advocacy organizations have a deep understanding of the advocacy landscape in their state and understand how to bring diverse groups — such as Republicans and Democrats or business and labor — together for a common cause. In Washington State, for example, the Washington Roundtable coordinates the College Promise Coalition, which includes stakeholders from public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, students, families, alumni, education advocates, education leaders, and business leaders. As part of its advocacy to improve enrollment and completion rates in the state’s postsecondary institutions, the coalition’s broad base demonstrated widespread support for the Workforce Education Investment Act, which ultimately passed. Coordinating community-wide efforts like these will be imperative as regions work to repair their business, economic, and education sectors in a post-COVID world.  Continue reading

Business Leaders Must Continue to Engage in Education Advocacy

The business and education sectors are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. Among small businesses, 75% have applied for emergency relief from the federal government and nearly three in ten have reduced staff. About half report having less than one month cash on hand. At the same time, tens of thousands of schools are closed and uneven transitions to distance education suggest significant adverse effects on student learning.

That’s why, even as the business community struggles to keep its head above water, business leaders must continue to invest time and energy into supporting the best possible paths forward for students — our nation’s future employees, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

A strong education system is key to economic growth, something that will be a priority after this crisis. In addition to the vast research linking a population’s education to economic prosperity, it’s impossible to miss how the unemployment rate for high-school graduates is currently at least twice that for those who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. As policymakers think about economic recovery in the years ahead, they will benefit from the business community’s vantage point on the skills and knowledge students need to be successful.

cover of May 2020 bellwether report

National business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce include education as a policy priority; other business organizations, like America Succeeds, focus exclusively on education issues. In recent years, these and other business efforts have lent their voice to the drive toward providing strong options for students after high school, including apprenticeships and industry certifications alongside four-year college degrees. But business associations have a long track record of engaging in essential education issues; they were an important part of the coalition advancing higher standards and accountability in the 1990s, which helped shine a light on vast inequities in the education system and created urgency for reform.

Today, with the learning trajectories of students in turmoil, the business community again has a stake in charting the path forward. Business advocacy organizations can help create space for innovative thinking and drive policy proposals for resources and programs tailored to the needs of their state. And they can impart skills, for instance convening school leaders who benefit from management training. In Washington State, Partnership for Learning and the Washington Roundtable have provided leadership training to high school principals.

The business community can also support the continuation of learning for high school students through apprenticeships and other work-based learning experiences, since the school year has been disrupted and postsecondary opportunities have been clouded by economic uncertainty. Colorado Succeeds, an affiliate of America Succeeds, helped establish a state policy that provides school districts and charter schools up to $1,000 per student who completes a qualified industry credential program, work-based learning experience, or relevant coursework.

Of course the business community shouldn’t be the sole voice in education, especially since the purpose of schooling is not just about ensuring future economic prosperity. We also rely on schools to shape upstanding community members and informed citizens. But the business community absolutely has interests aligned to the success of today’s students — its perspectives are legitimate and often valuable.

Educators and policymakers should ensure it has a seat at the table.