Class Privilege 101

College forces middle-class culture onto students. Former poor-kid-in-college Rita Rathbone says that’s a problem.

By Rita Rathbone
I was really intrigued by the recent discussion about college and disadvantaged students. Research is showing us that those who come from poverty still earn less in their lifetime, even with a college degree, than those from more affluent backgrounds. And those are the students who actually finish.  Far too many low-income students rack up large amounts of debt, but fail to graduate. In the long run, they are worse off. These are profoundly important facts to inform our discussions around education policy. This matters to me because I am a public school teacher and education scholar. It matters even more to me because I once was a poor kid in college.

I was born and raised in Southern Appalachia in one of the many lingering pockets of extreme rural poverty in America. Not only was my family and most of my community impoverished, we were culturally and physically isolated. Violence and alcoholism were common fixtures. My mother was a product of the foster care system, my father struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability, and I had a special needs sibling. I graduated in the top 5% of my class with a 4.65 GPA despite working 35-40 hours per week, starting the week of my 16th birthday. I was a first generation college student. I am sure I would have been a dream come true for an Ivy League admissions officer in search of a scholarship recipient. I didn’t apply to any Ivy League schools, though. I attended the closest public university to me, 30 miles away. And I only did that instead of going to the local community college because I was offered a scholarship to become a teacher, something that I was passionate about. Continue reading →

Podcast: Why College Won’t Fix Poverty

Have You Heard heads to campus to talk to three current and former students. They *get* what researchers are just beginning to understand: that going to college isn’t the silver bullet to solving poverty. By saddling students with debt and degrees that aren’t worth that muchif they finish at allcollege may even be making the problem worse.

Family Affair

Political scientist Maurice Cunningham says the campaign to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is driven by GOP operatives and a handful of wealthy Republican families…

EduShyster: Ads in support of Question 2, the ballot initiative that will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the Bay State, are running during the Olympics, and come with the tagline: *more money for public education.* I was prepared to give them a gold medal for, um, dexterity, but since the ads are being produced by the team that made the infamous Swift Boat ads that cost John Kerry the 2004 presidential election, I suspect there’s plenty more where that came from.

Maurice Cunningham: I think we can expect some rough stuff. This is a Republican effort, it’s a big money effort, and it’s a conservative effort. That’s where they tend to go.

EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.

Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.

EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?

Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done. Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured.

EduShyster: Readers of this blog will recognize the name Families for Excellent Schools, a New York group that set up shop in the Bay State in 2014, and which counted our Republican Secretary of Education James Peyser as its *uncle* until about 15 minutes ago. But *families* in this case literally refers to six families.

Cunningham: The same small group of families that gave to the ballot committee, which is now Great Schools Massachusetts, gives to a private foundation called Strategic Grant Partners year after year. Strategic Grant Partners is at the center of this whole thing, and it’s where you really see the longer term view taking shape. Joanna Jacobson, who founded it, understands strategic vision and marketing. She comes from a corporate background; she has a Harvard MBA and was the president of Keds. Jim Peyser is a central figure when you look at who was involved, both as a board member of Families for Excellent Schools and in his former capacity as a managing partner of New Schools Venture Fund. They’ve been at this for several years now—much longer than most people are aware of.

*Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward.

EduShyster: Is it really so bad if a secretive cabal hatches a strategic plan and marshals millions of dollars from untraceable sources if it means more Great Schools™?

Cunningham: I think it’s terrible for democracy. *Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice. *We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.* To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.

EduShyster: Massachusetts is no stranger to divisive education ballot initiatives backed by wealthy businessmen. There was the measure that eliminated bilingual education back in 2002. Coincidentally, it was also the work of a Republican and also called *Question 2.* What’s different about the campaign to lift the charter cap?

Cunningham: We’re in the Citizens United era now, and that’s true nationally and here in Massachusetts. I think the application of a huge amount of money from a very small group of people who hide pretty well, that’s new. A good deal of this campaign is *off the books*—at least so far as campaign finance disclosure goes. I always look to see who the contributors that are listed at the end of the ad. Look at those contributors and see if you can figure out who the heck any of those people are—and you can’t. Basically you have what is a Russian nesting doll problem here.  These people hide because they know that if voters recognize who is really behind this ballot question, they’ll be less likely to support it.

EduShyster: I thought you were going to say that what’s different is that this time it’s about the kids…

Maurice *Mo* Cunningham is a professor of Political Science at UMass Boston and a long-time commentator on Massachusetts politics. He blogs at MassPolitics Profs.

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Foundations Unfiltered

Megan Tompkins-Stange spent five years conducting confidential interviews with insiders at some of the foundations most involved in education reform. What they told her will surprise you. Or not… 

EduShyster: You spent five years interviewing insiders at some of the foundations most involved in education reform, and your new book Policy Patrons allows readers to *listen in* on conversations that are, let’s just say, enlightening. I want to give readers a taste by jumping right into a Gates Foundation official’s take on the chummy relationship between the foundation and the Obama administration—or as one Obama staffer describes it in a telling slip of the tongue, the Gates administration. 

mst7

Megan Tompkins-Stange: I think this is one of the more interesting quotes in the book, because it’s quite self-reflective. On the one hand, the source is acknowledging that the close coupling between Gates and the Department of Education under Arne Duncan was great because it pushed their agenda forward. But on the other hand, they’re acknowledging that it’s somewhat problematic in terms of democratic legitimacy. It was my sense that most of the people I talked to hadn’t engaged—at an organizational level—with the larger question of *What’s our role in a liberal democracy?* or *Is this the right thing for us to do as a foundation?* They were so focused on the work—they talked about *We’re changing things; we’re moving the policy, look at all these things we’ve accomplished.* The democracy part of it was not really a part of the equation in terms of their day-to-day discussions. It was more about, *How do we get the elites who can really move this policy on board?* But it seems like that is changing now in a few contexts. Continue reading →

How Schools in New Orleans Are Trying to Grow Children Like Monsanto Grows Corn

A teacher in New Orleans sees some startling similarities between the education of the city’s children and the way that commodity crops are grown on industrial farms…

By Stefin Pasternak
The way we educate our children in many schools in New Orleans these days shares some startling similarities with how industrial farms raise commodity crops. Industrial farms prefer the complete uniformity of straight, orderly rows of a single crop rather than the organic relationships of different organisms that support one another in a true ecosystem.  Many of our schools prefer to educate children under the veil of a culture of straight, silent lines, seeking to produce identical outcomes rather than cultivating the organic interactions and freedoms that breed healthy children and communities.1

Industrial farms prefer to control as many variables in the growing process as possible instead of encouraging a diversity of variables to yield different growing environments.  Many schools try to control as many variables in the teaching process as possible instead of encouraging a diverse array of teaching styles and critical thought.

Industrial farms prefer to genetically engineer crops for yield at the expense of taste and nutrition, leaving us with a surplus of tasteless, nutrition-less food-like plants.  Many of our schools prefer to educate kids who score basic or above on a battery of dozens of standardized tests, but who cannot fend for themselves in the real world, rather than kids who lead happy, healthy lives and build healthy communities.

And as is well understood these days, industrial agriculture does all this to the complete and total devastation of our ecology and climate.  So what of the schools who raise kids this way? Continue reading →