Dear Edulosopher…

Editor’s note: When I heard education ethicist Jacob Fay give a talk last spring on the ethics of school closures, a brilliant idea occurred to me. What if I could convince him to collaborate with me on an advice column for the ethically conflicted, confused or challenged? Reader: he leaped at the opportunity and Dear Edulosopher was born. I get things rolling today with a question about my own ethical responsibilities as an opinionated blogger. In future installments, Fay will respond to a voter torn over how to vote on a ballot question that would expand charter schools in Massachusetts, a progressive-minded teacher who worries that she’s gotten just a little too comfortable enforcing *no-excuses* style discipline, and [insert your ethically-charged topic here.] All questions welcomed!

Dear Edulosopher:
I write a blog about the unintended consequences of education reform, and I often feature parent voices on my site. Or as has been pointed out to me on multiple occasions, I feature some parent voices. The narratives I share tend to *align* with my point of view. They feature parents on hunger strikes demanding a neighborhood school, protesting excessive discipline at charter schools, or refusing to let their kids (or grandkids) take standardized tests. What you won’t find are the stories of parents who are rallying, marching and lobbying to demand more charter schools in [insert the name of city here]. While it’s true that I’ve never been asked to run anything like this, it’s also the case that I don’t seek out these narratives like I do the parent protesters whose causes I agree with. My defense is that I have a *litmus question* I apply when it comes to evaluating parent activism: do the parents involved have any say over the thing they’re demanding? For example, if they’re pushing for more *great schools,* do they get to determine what a *great school* is? But a small part of me thinketh that I doth protesteth too much. If I make the claim to care about parent voice, shouldn’t I care about all kinds of parent voices, even if I don’t necessarily like what they’re saying? Continue reading →

The Shill-y Season

Where does Democrats for Education Reform’s single-issue extremism lead? 

At a time when Democrats and their party are, by virtually every index, moving left, a powerful center-right pressure group within the liberal universe has nonetheless sprung up. Funded by billionaires and arrayed against unions, it is increasingly contesting for power in city halls and statehouses where Democrats already govern…

Entering-Somerville.jpg (500×332)Quick reader: why does this pithy description of the charter school lobby, quoted from a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, sound, um, so accurate? If you answered *because this is exactly what’s playing out in Massachusetts,* you would be correct. To see for ourselves, we need travel no further than Somerville, MA, which is the site of a somewhat, ahem, unusual political showdown. In one corner is Senator Pat Jehlen, a longtime progressive leader in the state Senate and public education champion. Her opponent, Leland Cheung, is a former Republican legislative candidate from Virginia turned Harvard student turned Cambridge City Councilor turned Democrat for Education Reform. Thirsty already, reader?  Continue reading →

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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