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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bobby Jindal, Using ALEC Playbook, Radically Reshapes Public Education

Monday, April 23 2012

Gov. Bobby Jindal (pictured above) has remade the Louisiana public schools system with impressive speed over the past legislative session. Last week, he signed into law a suite of landmark reform bills that will likely change the direction of public education in Louisiana forever. But not all change is good, and critics say both Jindal’s agenda and the strategy to move it come right from the playbook of conservative advocacy group ALEC, in an effort to revive Jindal’s national political profile.
Louisiana is now home to the nation’s most expansive school voucher program. Charter school authorization powers have been broadened. And teacher tenure policies have been radically transformed. Louisiana already had something of a reputation as a radical-reform state, thanks to the post-Katrina educational climate in New Orleans. But not all change is good, and education advocates have deep concerns about the efficacy of Jindal’s overhaul, and the interests that have push it.
“With these laws Gov. Bobby Jindal has sold our kids out for his political aspirations,” said Karran Harper Royal, a Louisiana parent activist and education advocate.
The bills all sprinted through the state legislature. Committee hearings were conducted at a breakneck speed, Democratic lawmakers complained, and members were asked to vote on amendments they didn’t actually understand. When the House took up a bill changing teacher-tenure rules, it ran the session past midnight, refusing to break until they called for a vote.
“There’s just so much more here than what our group can handle,” said Minh Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, a community advocacy group. “We don’t even have the capacity to handle all the bills that are being proposed right now and it’s been really challenging to us.”
ALEC’s 2010 “Report Card on American Education” (PDF) suggested that lawmakers overwhelm their opposition in exactly this manner. “Do not simply just introduce one reform in the legislature—build a consensus for reform and introduce a lot,” the report authors told ALEC members.
“Across the country for the past two decades, education reform efforts have popped up in legislatures at different times in different places,” the report authors wrote. “As a result, teachers’ unions have been playing something akin to ‘whack-a- mole’—you know the game—striking down as many education reform efforts as possible. Many times, the unions successfully ‘whack’ the ‘mole,’ i.e., the reform legislation. Sometimes, however, they miss. If all the moles pop up at once, there is no way the person with the mallet can get them all. Introduce comprehensive reform packages.”
One new law Jindal moved in this fashion will make Louisiana among the most aggressive states in the nation for pushing charter schools and publicly funded vouchers for private institutions. It also includes a “parent trigger” provision, where parents whose children are enrolled in a failing school can hand the school over to Louisiana’s Recovery School District if a majority choose to do so. However the key provision expands New Orleans’ current pilot voucher program so that now, students from high-poverty families enrolled in schools that have been rated a C, D or F by the state may move to a private school at the state’s expense.
More than half of Louisiana’s student population, or around 380,000 students, are expected to qualify for the voucher program, according to the Jindal administration. Only 4,000 vouchers will be available in the first year, experts estimate, but the law makes Louisiana’s program the most expansive in the nation.
Jindal’s set of reforms hews closely to the model reform legislation set out by ALEC, which advocates for the privatization of traditionally public services, like health care, prisons and education. ALEC and Jindal’s school agenda is driven by a conservative ideology that believes private markets can help introduce efficiency and healthy competition into public institutions. As ALEC’s education report card in 2010 laid out, “Families need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success, and either improves or eliminates failure.”
ALEC and Jindal have kept close ties for some time now, education watchers in the state say.
“This is really ALEC at work. It’s a feather in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cap—he has spent a lot of time traveling around the country lining up donor money and now he can say Louisiana is one of the few states that has a large choice environment,” said Royal, who pointed out that many of the key committee members who supported the legislation are ALEC members or have received campaign contributions from groups with ties to ALEC. Indeed, at its annual meeting last August, ALEC recognized Jindal with its coveted Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award for “outstanding public service.”
“It was a huge defeat for us,” said Damekia Morgan, the statewide educational policy and campaign director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.
Public ‘Accountability,’ Private Free-for-All
Critics say the rushed process hampered conversation on the bills. The voucher bill in particular is still light on specifics about implementation. The state has yet to create a plan for evaluating the private schools that take public vouchers. Evaluation wasn’t even mentioned until a vague amendment that calls for “an accountability system for participating students at participating schools” to be hammered out by the state board of education by Aug. 1.
The lack of an accountability plan is telling, says Morgan. The standards that are devised don’t need to come again before the public before they are codified. “This is all supposedly about demanding accountability for public schools and here we’re handing off our students to private schools without any checks,” Royal also said.
In addition, the parent trigger provisions are also too vague, education advocates say. In California, the lack of specificity around that state’s parent trigger law led to protracted court battles when a community first made use of the law.
These sorts of bills have an undeniable appeal for parents, especially poor parents of color who’ve been locked out of decision making circles and feel like their concerns have often gone ignored by public school administrators. Yet education advocates say that these bills provide only the veneer of choice for parents, while removing parents’ avenues for demanding accountability via collective action.
The parent trigger portion of the new Louisiana laws, for instance, allows for public schools to be converted only to charter schools. The laws give parents no avenue for re-triggering a failing charter school, of which there are many. And while lawmakers hope that parents feel empowered by school vouchers, their options for where they can place their children will be limited to the private school options on the table.
“Clearly these options are not full choice for parents,” said Andre Perry, associate director of Loyola University’s New Orleans’ Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. Perry said his concern was that these reforms, while bold, don’t get to the heart of how educational inequity is created in the first place. Instead, what lawmakers are voting for, Perry said, “is a belief in a philosophy that’s being applied in the name of choice.”
“It’s a catch-22 for parents,” said Morgan. “Parents are desperate for change. But as a parent myself, I know that the more money we take away from public education systems to go to private entities, the less control I have over what public education looks like.”
Hijacking Obama’s Agenda
These days, the push to deregulate public education is a popular, bipartisan issue. Many of the states that have passed school reform overhauls in recent years did so to become eligible for the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competitive grants program Race to the Top.
“Republican governors, shrewdly, jumped all over it and packed on their version of choice,” Perry said. “That’s how you see what we have now, where many different political bedfellows are coming together in a strange way.”
Indeed, Jindal spoke the language of the Obama administration last Wednesday when he touted his reform package as a way to help Louisiana children better compete in the global economy.
“[Louisiana children] are going to be competing with kids not only from Texas, Georgia, and other states, but they’re going to be competing for jobs with kids in China and other countries around the world,” Jindal said. “That is why it is so important we give every child in Louisiana a great education.” It could have been a line out of one of President Obama’s own education speeches.
This is one of the reasons why Perry says the presence of ALEC in the school reform policy arena isn’t reason enough for an outcry. Not only is ALEC not the only conservative group pushing for a free market approach to public education, but “there are pillars of each party that push the agenda.”
“The question is more about: what is so compelling about their arguments that is helping advance their agendas? Again, Jindal has been able to usher this through partly because the traditionally based system has failed in many ways. And that’s just the reality.”
This article has been updated since publication.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Valarie Strauss: Education reform protests pick up steam

Valarie Strauss
posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/20/2012

In Texas, New York, Illinois and other states, protests by parents and educators are getting louder against school reform that insists on using standardized test scores as the basis for evaluating students, educators and schools.
It is too early to call it a full-fledged revolt; Washington D.C. has yet to see tens of thousands of people marching through the streets against high-stakes standardized testing, which has been prominent in American education for a decade and is at the core of the Obama administration’s school accountability efforts.
But opposition is clearly growing, most prominently over “value-added” teacher evaluation models that purport to measure how much “value” a teacher adds to a student’s academic progress by using a complicated formula involving a student’s standardized test score.
Researchers have repeatedly warned that this evaluation method is not reliable — and doesn’t take into account all of the out-of-school reasons that could affect how a student does on a test — but the Obama administration has pushed it and states have been adopting new teacher accountability systems that are heavily weighted to test scores.
In New York, hundreds of professors at colleges and universities have banded together and signed a letter to political and education officials protesting the state’s new educator evaluation system, Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, which rests largely on test scores, and asking them to reconsider the reliance on high-stakes tests.
This effort follows one by school principals in New York to protest APPR with a petition that describes APPR is “an unproven, expensive and potentially harmful evaluation system” that “is not the path to lasting school improvement.” At this point, more than 1,432 New York State principals and more than 4,860 friends have signed the petition.
Meanwhile, in Texas, some 345 school districts — out of about 1,030 districts — have adopted a resolution that says that standardized tests are “strangling” public schools and asking the state Board of Education to rethink the testing regime. Those school districts represent more than 1.6 million students.
It was in Texas where the era of high-stakes testing was born. George W. Bush started a test-based accountability program when he was governor and then blew it out into a national education initiative known as No Child Left Behind during his presidency.
Thus it is somewhat ironic that this year Robert Scott, the Republican commissioner of education in Texas, caused a public stir when he told the Texas State Board of Education that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. California Gov. Jerry Brown had said essentially the same thing last year. Scott also agreed to postpone by a year a requirement that the results of each end-of-course exam account for 15 percent of a student’s final grade in that course.
It’s impossible to know if Scott’s comments had an effect on any other officials, but The New York Times reported last month that the chief academic officer of New York City’s public schools, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said publicly that he, too, has concerns about APPR because of the value-added formulas that carry so much weight.
“A principal should not ever be in a situation where ultimately their judgment gets trumped by a mechanistic formula,” he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, scores of professors and researchers from at least 16 universities throughout the Chicago metropolitan area recently signed an open letter to the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and Chicago school officials warning against implementing a teacher evaluation system that is based on standardized test scores.
The letter says, among other things, that “students will be adversely affected by the implementation of this new teacher-evaluation system” for a number of reasons. They include:
*A narrowing of curriculum as teachers focus more on test prep;
*Teachers whose jobs depend on their students doing well on standardized tests will “surely be incentivized to avoid students” with any kind of problem that could lead them to do poorly on the test
* Teachers will stop collaborating and become competitive, creating a bad environment for a school.
In addition to these protests, local groups of parents and educators in a number of states have started to seek ways to coordinate their efforts to protest standardized testing and help parents “opt” their children out of these tests.
Where this fledging revolt is going is unclear, but it is real, and for the moment, it is growing.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Betsy Combier: The NYC Department of Education Loses Their Appeal To The NYS Supreme Court To Terminate Steve Ostrin

From Betsy Combier:

Very temporary New York City Department of Education "chancellor-in-name-only" Cathie Black filed an appeal to the New York State Supreme Court of the decision of Arbitrator Howard Edelman in Steve Ostrin's case of a six-month suspension without pay. The DOE asked the court to terminate him, after he retired, and after the UFT, NYSUT, and the DOE failed to respect Steve's due process rights and kept him in the rubber room for almost seven years without any evidence, and two years after his case was closed by the Gotcha Squad. Judge Saliann Scarpulla threw out the DOE appeal, furious that the Corporation Counsel, Adam Collyer, AND NYSUT attorney Oriana Vigliotti wasted the court's time. File this under "The Gotcha Squad out of control".

Steve Ostrin holding the memo from Eric Nadelstern

The NYC Department of Education Loses Their Appeal To The NYS Supreme Court To Terminate Steve Ostrin
by Betsy Combier, Editor,
Brooklyn Technical High School

Steve Ostrin was an excellent teacher at Brooklyn Tech High School when accused of sexual harassment in order to divert attention away from former DOE Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina and Principal Lee McCaskill's fraudulent placing of McCaskill's daughter in a Brooklyn public school while McCaskill lived in New Jersey. Touching on the shoulder is not sexual harassment says SCI Investigator O'Sullivan (from another 3020-a where I was present; I whited out the name of the Respondent), and none of the allegations were ever substantiated by anyone....until Howard Edelman, arbitrator at 3020-a. Steve was arrested, attacked by NYC media, and placed in the NYC rubber room at 25 Chapel Street for almost seven years. No police or DOE or City investigators and not even the Grand Jury found any evidence that the charges were valid. In 2007 Ostrin's case was dropped by the DOE Gotcha Squad, as per a memo written by former Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern. No one told Steve. So Steve sat in the rubber room until 2010, when 3020-a Arbitrator suspended him for six months without pay after Steve showed him the Nadelstern memo and after he suddenly "found" some guilt on Steve's part. Steve filed an Appeal of this decision in Brooklyn Supreme Court asking for complete exoneration and the overturning of a decision which had no basis. The next day Cathie Black filed an Appeal of the Edelman decision, asking for a more severe penalty, termination.

Steve gave me a copy of the memo when he filed it along with his Article 7511 appeal in Brooklyn Supreme Court, and we gave it to Sue Edelman at lunch across the street from the court. A NY POST photographer took a picture of Steve with the memo (see my previous article, re-posted below). A lawyer working for the City told me that they were furious that Steve had this memo, and they demanded to know where I got it, as it was "confidential". So I told them and wrote about it.

I and Sue Edelman at the NYPOST exposed the Ostrin case, from very different perspectives. Ms. Edelman had her photographer take a picture of Steve holding the Nadelstern memo, yet never mentioned it in her article. The very temporary New York City Department of Education "chancellor-in-name-only" Cathie Black filed an appeal to the New York State Supreme Court of the decision of Arbitrator Howard Edelman in Steve Ostrin's case to suspend him for six months without pay. The DOE asked the court to terminate him rather than suspend him, NYSUT told Steve they would defend him in Manhattan Supreme Court IF HE DROPPED HIS APPEAL IN BROOKLYN. Steve did this, and months later retired.

After he retired, and after the UFT, NYSUT, and the DOE failed to respect Steve's due process rights by keeping him in one of the Brooklyn rubber rooms for almost seven years without any evidence, and two years after his case was closed by the Gotcha Squad, Judge Saliann Scarpulla threw out the DOE appeal, furious that the Corporation Counsel, Adam Collyer, AND NYSUT attorney Orianna Vigliotti wasted the court's time.

The day of oral argument at in Judge Scarpulla's courtroom at 60 Centre Street I arrived early, and stood a few feet away from NYSUT Attorney Vigliotti. I thought I would say hello, but she glared at me, so I stayed silent and sat down in the courtroom when the doors opened. She sat right in front of me. Adam Collyer, Corporation Counsel and representing Cathie Black, sheepishly nodded in my direction as he entered the courtroom. I have seen his improper antics trying to get the Court to listen to him before.

Judge Scarpulla is a no-nonsense judge. She was furious with the presentation of both sides at this hearing. Her anger and frustration was well-placed, as her court could do nothing about the Edelman decision because Ostrin had retired. Scarpulla questioned the rationality of bringing a lawsuit against a decision recommending a six-month suspension where she could not terminate Steve Ostrin, as the DOE wanted, nor could she overturn the six-month suspension because NYSUT did not ask for that.

Steve's appeal with the secret memo from DOE Gotcha Squad Attorneys Theresa Europe and Cheryl Smith (now Massena), which stated that as the DOE Attorneys had closed his case and saw no evidence that he had ever done anything to substantiate the charges against him and they were not going to pursue the matter, was not mentioned to Judge Scarpulla in either side's papers nor during oral argument. I think this is shocking, because neither side wanted to give Scarpulla all the information relevant to Steve's charges, yet were arguing for and against the Edelman decision, which made no sense due to the memo.

Obviously the purpose of NYSUT taking on the appeal as long as Steve dropped his Brooklyn Article 7511 and withdrew it, was to obliterate this secret memo's existence, along with the approval of the City of New York. This memo proves that NYSUT, the UFT, and the City of New York and the Gotcha Squad are wasting public money for political purposes.

Judge Scarpulla saw through the irrational pursuit of a petitioner filed against someone who was retired, but she did not bring up the Nadelstern memo, and thus it can be assumed she knew nothing about it. She was angry enough for being dragged into this even without the added information that Steve Ostrin should never have been brought to 3020-a in the first place, and NYSUT, the UFT, the NYC DOE and the City of New York all knew this.

But NYSUT, the UFT, and the DOE didnt let Steve know. He sat in the rubber room at 25 Chapel Street waiting for his 3020-a just like the other 150 people in the room. In 2009 his arbitration "trial" began, with Cheryl Smith Massena for the DOE prosecuting Steve for charges she knew were unsubstantiated. The UFT and NYSUT allowed the 3020-a to go forward even though they knew that there was no substantiation of any charges. Steve's attorney, Timothy Taylor, NYSUT Latham, not only pretended that the charges were valid, but closed the hearing after Steve demanded an open and public trial.

Steve relayed to everyone at 25 Chapel Street and to me as well (I knew Steve before I started working for the UFT in 2007) everything that went on at his 3020-a, and when he brought in the secret memo written by Eric Nadelstern, Edelman stopped the hearing, evidently, according to Steve, angry that he was duped by Cheryl Smith into believing the charges were validated by the investigators.

Below is my previous post:

The Story of Steve Ostrin And The Violation Of His Due Process Rights By The NYC Department of Education, UFT, and NYSUT
On January 30, 2011, NYPOST reporter Sue Edelman wrote an article called "Teach Untouchable" concerning the case of former rubber roomer Steve Ostrin. I met with Sue and Steve on January 25, at Steve's request, and discussed the mess that the NYC DOE made in this matter. Steve gave Sue the "smoking gun" memo sent from Theresa Europe to former DOE official Eric Nadelstern who resigned last week, that you see Steve holding in the picture above. Steve also gave her a copy of his grievance when the DOE would not release him from the rubber room after all charges were dropped against him in 2007, he gave her the information that there was no substantiation of the charges by SCI - nor was there an investigation at all - and Steve was acquitted at the criminal trial by a jury. The NY POST chose to ignore all the facts and go with the DOE in defaming Steve once again. I see the hands of Joel Klein in this, and I look forward to a final resolution of the terrible process known as "rubberization" of tenured teachers now that NYSUT has taken on the representation in NYC Supreme Court of the Black petition.

How can I say such things? I worked as a UFT rep. for three years, hired part-time by Randi Weingarten to help her find out what was going on in public schools, assist teachers who needed advice on what to do in times of trouble, and visit the temporary re-assignment centers or "rubber rooms" to talk with the people there and find out what their cases were all about. I did my job, not knowing that they - the UFT now headed by Michael Mulgrew - did NOT want someone like me, an investigative reporter, looking into re-assigned NYC personnel, because the UFT is doing nothing to help its members, just like the DOE is throwing tenured people into the garbage.

In fact, under Bloomberg, the garbage can was at first not large enough to handle all the people principals were allowed, under color of law/rule/DOE regulations, to throw away. So, large (and 1 small) rooms were rented or made available to the garbage teachers and these rooms became the holding pens of allegedly guilty people. Tenured teachers get "due process", or 3020 trial, an arbitration hearing 3020-a. In NYC no one gets to assist in choosing the single arbitrator who decides a case. You get the person supposedly randomly chosen to arbitrate the case that is next in line. At present there is at least one lawsuit in federal court and many in State Court on this topic, and there will be more.

As an advocate for rights, I jumped into the mud of the NYC DOE "rubberization process" as I call it, and found that the denial of rights is astonishing. Believe me, I asked why many times at the UFT, and I was told they didn't need me anymore in July, 2010. That's ok, because now I can write about
what REALLY happened over the last 9 years under Mayor Bloomberg,, and how the UFT, NYSUT and the NYC DOE all worked as a team in making thousands of people sick with emotional distress, without housing, medical benefits, or jobs of any kind. Not everyone that went through the rubber room ringer is innocent, but many are, and my efforts to expose this disaster with my website, blog, and my voice at the PEP Sept 2007, is for them, and all of us - our children, our way off life, and our future.

I met Steve at his rubber room, 25 Chapel Street early in 2007, and have followed his case ever since. In sum, his case is a matter of the DOE wanting a diversion from media exposure of the misconduct of Principal Lee McCaskill of Brooklyn Technical High School, and one of the most "honored" DOE officials, Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina. The NYC DOE picked a very popular teacher to condemn to the garbage as a way of nullifying the media attacks on MacCaskill. The police arrested Steve in March 2005, he was put in prison, given a criminal trial, and his family almost dissolved while he sat for almost six years in the holding pen/garbaage can/rubber room at 25 Chapel Street, 10th floor, Brooklyn N.Y. and had the public pay his salary. No investigation ever proved he was guilty at all, no jury or District Attorney ever believed the accusations of the girl who complained about his behavior, and by all accounts Steve was on his way to being the biggest mistake the NYC DOE ever made, with the UFT approval.

Nevertheless Steve was denied representation by the New York City Law Department when Grace sued him. The City paid her to end her lawsuit....even though there was no proof that she had ever been truthful. This could have been a huge money maker for anyone, as the City didnt want to recognize that they had fallen into the trap of lying about charges, then not wanting to be held accountable for it. Only one other student took advantage of this opportunity, and got paid by the City to drop her lawsuit as well.

Until the DOE "Gotcha Squad" dug up arbitrator Howard Edelman and Attorney Timothy Taylor and put Steve on trial at 51 Chambers Street where the Administrative Trial Unit (ATU) conducts the 3020-a arbitrations for tenured teachers. I have sat in hearings when asked to observe, for almost 8 years, and I can tell you that the "due process" is a sham. More about this in another article.

After no investigation took place because no one believed that Grace Olamijulo was telling the truth - as well as her copycat colleague JH, who also got money from the City for making an accusation against Steve) - and after the Smith/Europe/Nadelstern "smoking gun" memo showed Edelman that 3020-a Attorney Cheryl Smith was lying about the charges (and Edelman was furious), Howard Edelman found Steve culpable of "...a single event in which a teacher [Ostrin] touched a student on her arm and made inappropriate comments" (Edelman award, p. 32). Edelman gave Steve the punishment of six months without pay (or medical benefits), to give a Solomonlike decision ("i.e. splitting the baby" and pleasing both the UFT and the DOE by not exonerating Steve, and thus making it look like the NYC DOE was wrongly spending public money for six years). The DOE spent more than $500,000 in this one case, to prove that Grace was right. So why was there no investigation?

Cathie Black, the new CEO of the NYC DOE, has filed a 7511 Appeal of 3020-a arbitrator Howard Edelman's decision to suspend Steve for six months without pay, she wants him terminated despite the lack of any investigation and the DA, SCI and the DOE finding the girl, Grace, not credible. Steve filed a 7511 in Brooklyn Supreme Court two days earlier, pro se (representing himself).

Below, you will hear from me about the "facts" in this case. Keep in mind while you decide for yourself what the "facts" really are, that the UFT did nothing to help Steve throughout this ordeal that almost cost him his marriage and certainly cost him his career and his well-being for six years. What the UFT and NYSUT should have done is, when all charges were dropped in 2007 and all parties found the girl to be incredible, is put Steve back in his teaching position. No one did this because, I think, all parties hate to admit error, and now the battle is on. I'm writing a book.

The real story of the Rubber Room saga of Steve Ostrin

The real story of Steve Ostrin is based upon the fact that no one believed he sexually abused any child at any time. Grace and Julie were two young women who saw an opportunity to make some money, and the City complied, because their investigators were looking into Brooklyn Tech Principal Lee McCaskill and his associate, Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina, and they needed to divert public attention away from these two people.

Anyone who is not sure what is going on in NYC education should start, I think, with Michael Cardozo's letter sent to the Justice Department in 2003 that argued for a removal of the right to vote for a school board in New York City. See Michael Cardozo's letter asking Mr. Rich at the U.S. Department of Justice to allow removal of voting for the school board, and then describing the reasons for the removal of the right to vote in a long report: "Editorial: The New York City Department of Education is a Sham and Mike Bloomberg is the Flim-Flam Man."

After Mike Bloomberg became Mayor and took control of the public school system in 2002, he spoke often about his desire to be "The Education Mayor", the person who turned all public schools into successful mini-businesses. In this business model, teachers become workers who are easily and necessarily replaced whenever his or her performance is, according to the supervisor, "not perfect". Soon, principals and superintendents had the right to hire and/or fire anyone, at any time. Tenure, with the promise of due process for all who hold this status, was technically over.

To prove to his followers he could do whatever he promised, Mike had to get rid of "dead wood", as in senior teachers who didnt want to spend every day teaching to a test, and then testing for the test; as in senior teachers whose salary was $100,000+ ...when two younger teachers could be paid for that price; as in tenured teachers who had cancer or some debillitating injury that had to take time away from their jobs; and so on.

Principals began to throw teachers out of their positions quickly and for no reason, or for a reason that would have incurred only a counseling memo or letter to file in previous years. For example, if you were a caring teacher and a student was crying and you gave them a hug, you became a "sexual pervert" and were removed from your job; if a student made an effort to do well and you were so happy that you tapped the student on the shoulder and said "well done!" you will be arrested for corporal punishment and led out of the school in handcuffs, in front of your students and reporters from the New York Post or Daily News, called ahead of time to get the picture. Who replaced you? A substitute teacher, someone who probably couldn't teach the curriculum.

Where did the miscreant teacher go, while the NYC DOE "proved" his or her "guilt"? The 'rubber room' or re-assignment center. In 2007 there were seven large rooms in all boroughs - Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Harlem, Bronx, Washington Heights, Brooklyn; then, in 2008 another, small room was opened, also in Brooklyn (355 Park Place, basement). This was, in my opinion, a huge error. When 100+ adults are in a room every day and are told to sit and not talk to anyone about his or her case, that is exactly what the conversations will be about. And I was the UFT "rubber room girl" hired part-time by Randi Weingarten to listen, and to find out what was going on, and try to do something about it. I kept complaining about the situation but stayed 3 years, until the rooms were closed.

The other factor that plays into understanding how the rubber rooms were opened and stayed open until July 2010 is, principals were told by hire-ups to get rid of anyone who blew the whistle on school finances, corruption, violations of law, etc., and they - the "higher-ups" and their 'helpers' - would receive immunity from prosecution. In other words, if the administrators played their parts well, and got rid of anyone who did not meet the corporate criteria, no one would be able to hold them accountable for anything. The Corporation Counsel protects all of these people until there is some exposure of what they did. Then, the person "resigns" (and is moved to another job).

It was in this environment of terror, destruction of innocent lives, and lies that the case of Steve Ostrin began, and circumstances made this case a perfect storm of injustice.
The school where Steve Ostrin taught for 18 years and where he was considered one of the "best teachers ever", Brooklyn Technical High School, or "Brooklyn Tech", is one of the Specialized High Schools of New York City. You can get in if you score high enough on the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test). Lee McCaskill, the Principal of Brooklyn Tech in 2004, felt uncomfortable. He and Steve had a 'contentious' relationship, and he, McCaskill, was beginning to worry that his cover would be blown. McCaskill had made a deal with then Deputy Chancellor (former District 15 Superintendent Carmen Farina) to put his daughter into a highly regarded public school in D15, even though McCaskill lived in New Jersey. This is against the law in New York State. Mrs. McCaskill also worked for the NYC DOE at Boys and Girls High School, a school in Brooklyn, but she resigned.

When the investigation into Lee McCaskill started heating up, the NYC DOE decided it was time to delay and obstruct the public's view of the crimes of Lee McCaskill and Carmen Farina, one of their "best" administrators (she brought in and supported Diana Lam):

B'KLYN TECH'S CRASS WARFARE. Principal, teachers feud at elite high school

WAVES OF TURMOIL are threatening to undermine the once-impeccable reputation of Brooklyn Technical High School - one of the city's most prestigious public schools.

Brooklyn Tech's tradition of excellence already has been sullied from a long-running battle between many respected teachers and Principal Lee McCaskill.

But the war inside the Fort Greene school is boiling over now with public charges of crass behavior, censorship, harassment and questionable management decisions.

Teachers have fled to other respected schools. Parents are trying to figure out what to believe. And perhaps most unsettling, Brooklyn Tech's students say they feel the tension.

A senior, who asked to be identified only as Eric, said he witnessed Assistant Principal Tracy Atkins-Zoughlami engage in a screaming match with two deans in the hallway.

"It was disturbing and unprofessional," the 17-year-old said. The student also claimed McCaskill once called a group of media students "dumb-asses."

McCaskill's detractors have no shortage of complaints about him and the school where he has worked since the late 1980s.

Brooklyn Tech has not published a student newspaper in more than a year because McCaskill had so heavily censored it - once destroying 4,000 copies - that no teacher will serve as an adviser, instructors charged.

For the last two months, 32 new computers have sat covered in plastic, unused because the room isn't properly wired.

The school radio room is packed with outdated equipment and has been shut down for 20 years even though a teacher secured a $10,000 grant. Teachers want to know what happened to that money.

Many instructors also claim McCaskill rules with an iron fist - often targeting outspoken veterans and treating students like prisoners instead of prodigies.

But Education Department brass insist McCaskill is maintaining excellence at the school and adamantly support him.

Deputy Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina called the charges a "union ploy to pick on a particular principal who exercises his right" to give teachers unfavorable reviews. "He does what he feels like he needs to do to make the teachers the best possible," Farina said.

Education Department officials promised a student paper would be up and running by next year. They vowed to send in engineers to fix the computer room and said the radio equipment is owned by WNYE.

Since being founded nearly 90 years ago, Brooklyn Tech has turned out Nobel Prize laureates, congressional leaders, billionaire entrepreneurs, corporate executives and noted scientists, engineers and architects.

It remains one of the city's most difficult schools to get into, enrolling about 4,500 students and boasting a 95% graduation rate.

But Brooklyn Tech traditionally has trailed behind Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science in terms of popularity among top students, said Pamela Wheaton of Advocates for Children.

"When parents choose a school like Brooklyn Tech, they choose the name, not the principal," Wheaton said.

McCaskill could not be reached for comment because he was in North Carolina last week for the funeral of his nephew, who was killed in Iraq.

The most recent edition of the teachers union's newspaper included a supercritical article about him and the school, referring to it as Brooklyn "wreck." It marked the latest - and harshest - assault on McCaskill.

Just three years ago, he was accused of sending obscene E-mails to teachers. A city investigation concluded that some of the messages had been sent by his brother and others seemed to be authored by a hacker.

The allegations were among a long list of accusations against McCaskill over the last decade, including playing favorites with job assignments and faking timecards for friends.

In the last four years, a third of Brooklyn Tech's nearly 40-teacher English Department has left, according to English teacher Daniel Baldwin. "There used to be an almost cultish devotion to teaching at Tech," he said. "Teachers would come here and they wouldn't leave. Now there is a revolving door."

But Jean Claude Bizard, the local instructional supervisor, attributed the turnover to retirements - and backed McCaskill.

"Tech has students who are demanding and parents who expect the best from teachers," he said. "So he has to have high standards and quite frankly some teachers can't handle it."

The parents association vice president, Teresa Mule, also defended McCaskill. "The principal's motto is, 'If things aren't done the right way, they aren't done,' . . . and that is a positive thing," she said.

Yet several well-regarded city schools have been thrilled to hire Brooklyn Tech's castoffs.

In a particularly notable case, veteran teacher Todd Friedman took a job at Midwood High School after McCaskill barred him from teaching the book "Continental Drift" in 2002. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but McCaskill called it sexually explicit and unacceptable.

Friedman is being honored this week with the New York Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Award for fighting McCaskill over the censorship.

"People don't generally want to leave a good school like Brooklyn Tech, but McCaskill and Tracy Atkins-Zoughlami are breaking the morale," Friedman said. "That's why many teachers have left."

The NYC DOE decided to go after popular teacher Steve Ostrin. On March 2, 2005, a student in Steve's class, Grace Olamijulo, accused Ostrin of making remarks to her that she thought were sexually harassing.

On March 4, 2005 Ostrin was removed from his school and sent to 131 Livingston Street and then to 25 Chapel Street in Brooklyn, where he remained until the rubber rooms were closed, July 2010. (He was then sent to another location to sit and await the arbitrator's decision in the 3020-a arbitration, which he received at the very end of December 2010).

On Sunday March 20, 2005 detectives from the 88th precinct came to Steve's home, and in front of his wife and two small children arrested him for "endangering the welfare of a child and harassment in the second degree".

On February 10, 2006 Steve was acquitted of all charges after a trial by jury in criminal court. Lee McCaskill testified, then resigned later the same day. Steve remained in the Brooklyn rubber room. No charges were brought by the NYC DOE until May 11, 2007, after Steve asked for Attorney fees for his paying of the attorneys in the criminal trial. This set off a firestorm because the NYC DOE did not want to pay Steve's legal costs.

On February 5, 2007 Steve was told to go to the Leon Goldstein High School For Sciences, as he was cleared. On February 6, 2007 counsel for NYSUT (the legal arm of the UFT) received an email from Theresa Europe, Attorney of the Administrative Trials Unit or "Gotcha Squad", saying that the ATU Was not going forward with charges, and Steve was no longer on the ineligible list. He filed a grievance (2/15/07) based upon Article 21G(4) of the DOE/UFT contract that states:

...the employee will be restored to service no later than 6 months from the date of his/her removal unless 3020a charges have been preferred against the employee (remember, none had been filed). Yet Marcel Kshensky denied the grievance, the very same Marcel Kshensky who is currently being sued in Federal Court for racial discrimination. (See Marcel Kshensky)

Kshensky denied the grievance, saying that there was an internal investigation being conducted by the DOE - but there was no investigation. (April 17, 2007)

On May 8, 2008, Steve was brought to a probable cause hearing with Arbitrator Martin Scheinman. Scheinman ruled that Steve could not be removed from payroll because
"...Probable cause cannot be established where it is based upon an alleged felony committed on school property or while in the performance of teaching duties as to which a criminal court have ruled Respondent not guilty."....Respondent was not found guilty of criminal charges that were based upon the very same factual allegations set forth in the Specifications against Respondent and on which the Department bases its probable cause request."

Then, on June 19, 2009, Steve Ostrin went to 65 Court street on a tip and looked at his personnel file, where he found a memo from Cheryl Smith for Theresa Europe sent to former NYC DOE official Eric Nadelstern (he "resigned" in January 2011), closing the case against Steven Ostrin. The memo also states that the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation (SCI) concluded that "the allegations were unsubstantiated."

The matter was referred to the ATU, who, according to Theresa Europe, were closing the case. Lee McCaskill resigned his position in order to thwart criminal charges, and the investigators were very angry:

February 15, 2006
Investigator Rebukes City Schools Over Retirement of a Principal

The special commissioner of investigation for the city school system rebuked the Department of Education yesterday for allowing the principal of Brooklyn Technical High School to retire days before the completion of an investigation into his daughter's improper enrollment in a Brooklyn elementary school.
The commissioner, Richard J. Condon, included the criticism in a report describing a web of deception by the principal, Lee D. McCaskill, and his wife, a teacher at another Brooklyn school, to hide the fact that they lived in New Jersey.
The report said the couple had submitted a friend's Brooklyn address to get their daughter into the well-regarded Public School 29 in Cobble Hill without paying the tuition required of noncity residents. When faced with an investigation, Mr. Condon said, they gave contradictory testimony and submitted fake leases and other misleading documents to create the impression that they lived at the Brooklyn address.
Mr. Condon said it "was not prudent" for education officials "to enter into a settlement with Lee McCaskill before it could consider our findings." He said that since the Education Department did not wait for the investigation's results, "we can only note that McCaskill should be placed on the ineligible list and barred from future employment" in the city schools.
Mr. Condon wrote that he was forwarding his findings to the Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys for possible prosecution. He also recommended that Dr. McCaskill's wife, Cathy Furman McCaskill, be dismissed from her position as a teacher at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.
"All objective evidence and information examined in this investigation leads to the conclusion that the McCaskills deceived the D.O.E. and obtained more than three years of free education for their daughter, which is reserved for residents of New York City," Mr. Condon wrote. "Their sworn testimony concerning their living and commuting arrangements between the two addresses is, in part, contradictory, and, as a general matter, incredible and false."
Department of Education officials said Mrs. McCaskill had been reassigned to a regional office and that the department would move to fire her. They defended the agreement with Dr. McCaskill under which he was allowed to retire and pay the city $19,441 for four years of tuition, saying that his swift removal from the school was best for Brooklyn Tech, where a successor has already been named.
"The school has been in a lot of turmoil because of this principal, and we are looking at a process that could stretch on for months and could thereby cause a great deal of disruption in the school," said David Cantor, a department spokesman. "We felt that the situation was just too volatile to let this happen."
Neither of the McCaskills returned calls seeking comment, and a man who answered the telephone at their home yesterday said he did not wish to speak with reporters. A lawyer from the city principals' union, who represented both Dr. McCaskill and Mrs. McCaskill during the investigation, declined to comment through a union spokesman.
Dr. McCaskill is still being paid $125,282 because he is using up accrued vacation time, officials said. Under the agreement with the Education Department, he will be able to use his accrued sick leave, as long as he produces documentation of a medical condition. The sick leave will run out in August, officials said, at which point his retirement will begin. Dr. McCaskill, who is 49, will not receive his pension for several years.
In recent years, Dr. McCaskill's management style at Brooklyn Tech, the largest of the city's prestigious specialized high schools, has led to intense and in some cases well-publicized battles with teachers. They complained that he routinely canceled special trips and programs and that he retaliated against critics by giving out unfavorable performance ratings.
Randi Weingarten, president of the city teachers' union, went to the Department of Education last spring to complain about what she described as Dr. McCaskill's pervasive practice of intimidating and punishing teachers.
Until the last few days, the Department of Education had stood behind Dr. McCaskill. Last week, when the department announced the agreement that he would retire, Carmen Fariña, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, praised his leadership of Brooklyn Tech, telling reporters: "I wish him well. I think he's done a lot of good in that school."
Mr. Condon's investigation started in October, after the department's general counsel informed him of rumors that the McCaskills' daughter was improperly attending P.S. 29. It is a coveted school where Ms. Fariña herself taught for 22 years and sent her own daughters. Investigators found that while the school listed the family as living at 606 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, voting and vehicle registration records showed they live in Piscataway, N.J.
The Brooklyn address is the residence of Robin Kelly Sheares, a close family friend who is a lawyer. P.S. 29 is not the zoned school for that address, but its principal told investigators she had given Dr. McCaskill a variance as a "professional courtesy," believing he lived in the city.
The investigators also observed the family's morning commute, watching as a green Ford registered to Mrs. McCaskill made its way from Piscataway through Perth Amboy, N.J., and Staten Island, traveling to Brooklyn over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Once in Brooklyn, they found, a girl with a blue book bag was dropped off at Ms. Sheares' home or at the home of another nearby friend, who would drop the girl off at P.S. 29.
Asked where he lived, Dr. McCaskill told investigators that he had "both a Brooklyn and a New Jersey address," the report said. He said he rented a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn from Ms. Sheares, where his wife and daughter stayed during the week and where he stayed "off and on during the week."
Mrs. McCaskill, in what the report described as a "remarkable contrast to her husband's testimony," told investigators that Dr. McCaskill spent most weeknights in Piscataway.
Asked for evidence of his Brooklyn residency, Dr. McCaskill provided investigators with leases indicating that Mrs. McCaskill rented a Brooklyn apartment from Ms. Sheares for $200 a month, starting in October 2001. But the leases, investigators found, were ostensibly signed years before a 2004 copyright on the lease forms.
Mr. Condon referred the case of Ms. Sheares, who was also questioned and had signed the leases, to the grievance committee of the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court and the state court system's ethics commission. Ms. Sheares could not be reached for comment.

Nevertheless, Cheryl Smith, attorney for the DOE, and Theresa Europe at the ATU served 3020-a charges against Ostrin and pursued his termination with Arbitrator Howard Edelman two years AFTER the memo proved that the investigators, the DOE, and the ATU had found the charges "unsubstantiated".

Throughout, Steve Ostrin has denied that he made any sexual comment to any student at any time.

When Steve got the opinion of Edelman, he decided to appeal to the New York State Supreme Court, as he felt it was wrong of Edelman to remove him from his salary for six months based upon unsubstantiated charges that were never investigated. He filed his appeal and got the Index number on January 11, then served and filed the Verified Petition in Kings County, Brooklyn, on January 25, 2011. Cathie Black filed an appeal in New York State Supreme Court on January 13, and served a Verified Petition on NYSUT on January 27, 2011. The DOE wants Steve to be terminated. NYSUT has taken on the appeal.

No one knows what the war of the titans will bring as far as resolution to this matter, but I do know for sure that when Steve and I and Sue Edelman from the New York Post had lunch on January 25, 2011, and a picture was taken of Steve holding the Nadelstern memo, that Sue Edelman knew there was never an investigation, the District Attorney did not find the girl, Grace, to be credible, SCI found the charges to be unsubstantiated, a criminal trial acquitted Steve, and no one believes that Steve is guilty as charged. No one, that is, except Cathie Black and Joel Klein and his new employer, the New York Post. Stay tuned, this will be good reading when the papers from both sides try to justify a man spending almost six years in a rubber room without Just Cause. NYSUT, the UFT and the DOE are guilty of creating this perfect storm of injustice.

NYC Department of Education's Article 75 Petition against the decision of Arbitrator Joyce Klein not to terminate Tonia Hemingway
Judge Scarpulla Orders a judgment against the NYC Dept of Education in the case of Tonia Hemingway

Betsy Combier

I have written about my start in the investigation of the NYC DOE throwing educators out of their positions even when they have tenure, before, but here is a summary once again: in 2003 I was invited to be on-camera at a TV show produced by a friend, to talk about Judicial corruption, and when I got there, another person about to be on the same program, teacher David Pakter, started talking with me. He told me that there were rooms for teachers who blew the whistle on their principal, and these rooms were called "rubber rooms". I knew that this was a good story. I started looking into "rubber rooms" from the point of view of a person to whom facts and rights must be honored above all else. The cases that I looked at then, and the cases I still look at now, dont have either.

Teachers Are Easily Sabotaged When a Principal Wants To Get rid of Them: La Guardia High School and Brooklyn Technical High School(posted 2/28/2004)

Carmen Farina: Politics Wins With Her Appointment as Deputy Chancellor in New York City

The Arrogence of Immunity and the "Resignation" -or Retirement - of NYC DOE Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina

Former Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina Retired Because of Her Complicity With the McCaskill Wrongdoing(posted 6/2006)
Marcel Kshensky

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform by Joanne Barkan 

re-posted from

If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions. 

Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama
SPRING 2012 »
Hired Guns on Astroturf:
How to Buy and Sell School Reform

By Joanne Barkan, DISSENT

For Barkan’s other writing on the self-proclaimed “education reform movement,” click herehere, and here.

If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions.

Devolution of a Movement

For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher’s worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called “advocacy”) for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw “reform-think” dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.

Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers—even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates—see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers’ unions’ political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources—staff and money—into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.

Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: “We’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It’s about money, money, money” (Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*

* The ed reform movement comprises a large network of nonprofit organizations and consultancies whose funding comes mostly from private foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—with assets six times larger than Ford, the next largest foundation in the United States—dominates the movement. To give some sense of the interconnections and the scope of the colossal foundation, I note in parentheses the amount of money various groups have received from Gates.

The Great Political Opening

The Obama administration created the perfect opening for the ed reformers’ political strategy. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that in order to win federal funds in the 2010 Race to the Top contest, applicant states would have to pledge to abolish limits on charter schools, legislate teacher and principal evaluations based in part on students’ standardized test scores, and fully implement statewide data-collection systems. The mandates spurred money-starved states to propose controversial new education laws. Candidates running for office—from state senator to local school board member—took sides. The ed reform organizations plunged into both legislative and candidate battles, ratcheting up the campaign spending and rhetoric, casting each contest as a battle for the future of the nation through public school reform (tales of the campaigns further on).

The movement’s market-modeled reforms have so far produced more failures than successes. Study after study throws into question the value of most charter schools, incessant standardized testing, and grading teachers or closing schools based on student test scores. The ed reformers’ drive to get new laws passed aggravates matters by making bad policy mandatory and more widespread. It is mindless micromanaging gone amuck.

Take the case of Tennessee, where 35 percent of every teacher’s evaluation is now based on standardized test scores. On November 6, 2011, the New York Times reported that no tests exist for over half the subjects and grades, including kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, art, music, and vocational training. So state officials ruled that a school’s average scores for another subject and grade will be used for teachers without student scores. For example, fifth-grade writing scores will be plugged into, say, a first-grade teacher’s evaluation. In addition, teachers can choose the plug-in subject themselves for 15 percent of the 35 percent. This means they have to bet on which classes will produce the highest scores. A travesty? Not for the ever-ready boosters of the ed reform movement, including the New York Times editorial page. The Times offered this judgment on November 11: “…political forces [in Tennessee] are now talking about delaying the use of these evaluations. State lawmakers and education officials must resist any backsliding.” Anything goes as long as it’s stamped “ed reform.”

A summary critique of the reform strategy comes from Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011) and executive editor of Education Next (sponsored in part by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, $4.2 million from Gates, 2003-2009). Hess swears allegiance to market-based reforms but often criticizes the quality of his allies’ actual work. This is from his November 16, 2011 blog post on Education Week ($4.6 million from Gates, 2005-2009):

By turning school reform into a moral crusade, in which one either is, to quote our last President, “with us or against us,” would-be reformers wind up planting their flag atop all kinds of half-baked or ill-conceived proposals....Would-be reformers insist that overshooting the mark with half-baked proposals is actually a strategy, because that's how they'll cow the unions and change the culture of schooling. Indeed, they think concerns about program design are quaint evidence of naiveté.

Chipping Away at Democracy

Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (January 2010) and a related federal appeals court ruling in (March 2010) created loopholes for nonprofit organizations that effectively abolish all limits on campaign contributions. Ed reformers exploit the new legal framework exactly like other political operatives. This has two marked consequences. First is the fate of the original deal established by Congress—tax-exempt status in exchange for staying away from politics while serving some public good. The deal was eroded before Citizens United; now it has collapsed. In the world of ed reform, the political strategy makes a mockery of the tax-exempt privilege of the foundations and nonprofit groups involved. Second, most ed reformers have benefitted from branding themselves as progressives or “lifelong Democrats” (“I love labor unions—just not teachers’ unions”). This has given them credibility with liberals who, like most voters, haven’t paid close attention to the content and results of the ed reforms. The labeling has always been a ruse, but the politicking reformers have obliterated dividing lines: they work in local and state campaigns alongside corporate free-marketers and right-wing social conservatives who’ve long and openly supported privatizing public education, ending social programs, and eviscerating labor unions. In practice, they are one team.

Some funders and their tax-exempt grantees have hesitated to get more involved in politics. On occasion the reluctance has been cultural: they’ve always shied away from public debates on government policy and advocacy in general. More often it’s fear of jeopardizing their tax status. According to IRS regulations

• private foundations—a type of 501(c)3 organization—cannot lobby (defined as trying to influence legislation); they cannot campaign (defined as supporting or criticizing a candidate for public office); they can, however, “educate” anyone, including lawmakers, on any issue;

• most of the recipients of foundation money for ed reform are nonprofit groups with a different 501(c)3 status; they can do a specified amount of lobbying but no campaigning for candidates.

Here is the loophole: this second type of 501(c)3 can set up affiliated groups that do lobby and campaign. It can set up the following:

• political action committees (PACs), which have limits on the size of contributions accepted

• Independent Expenditure Committees (super PACs), which can accept unlimited contributions but cannot “coordinate” work with a candidate or party (an almost meaningless restriction)

• 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, such as the AARP and NAACP, which can accept unlimited contributions as long as political activity is not their “primary” activity (another weak restriction)

• 527 organizations that advocate only for issues, not candidates, and can accept unlimited contributions (the line separating issues from candidates is fuzzy)

Pro-politicking ed reformers routinely set up a full array of such groups and solicit contributions for each. In this way, they can collect unlimited funds from many donors for different purposes. Having mastered the nitty-gritty of political money, these reformers have been trying to convince their hesitant colleagues to join in and pony up.

Wary of Politics? Get Over It

On May 12, 2010, six reform leaders made their pitch to a roomful of funders, consultants, and staffers of nonprofits at the annual “summit” of the New Schools Venture Fund. The panel was called “Political Savvy: Guidebook for a New Landscape.” Speakers included executives from Green Dot Public [charter] Schools (Gates, $9.7 million, 2006-2007), Bellwether Education Partners (Gates, $951,800 in 2011), Hope Street Group (Gates, $875,000 in 2008-2009), Stand for Children (as noted above, $5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011), Democrats for Education Reform (a PAC), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (one of the largest ed reform funders, nonetheless a Gates grantee, $3.6 million, 2010).

Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman—who has turned his nonprofit into a political machine with prodigious fundraising capability and offices in eleven states—articulated the afternoon’s main themes: “We’re not using money for political purposes almost at all in this movement. If one percent of the money that’s going into charter schools went into politics and elections in the support of education reform, we would end up with way more progress for the movement.” Later, he exhorted, “And if you search your heart and you feel uncomfortable using certain tools, get over it.” He also addressed the legal issue: “It really needs to be ‘by any means necessary,’ and you can do a lot legally. What you can’t do legally in terms of electioneering, that’s where partnerships come in.” Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (another robust political outfit with affiliates around the country), offered more specific advice: “Find more creative lawyers. We need them [ed reform nonprofits] to fire all of their lawyers that tell them ‘no’ all the time, if they have traditional 501(c)3 lawyers….”

Another of Williams’s comments reveals what is so misguided about this brand of education reform: “I think charter schools should be paying advocacy organizations for their advocacy work out of their per pupil dollars. If you think of running a school as running a business, any sound business is going to allocate right off the bat a certain percentage of their funding towards lobbying, advocacy work.”

But why think of running a school as running a business? Striving for efficiency is one thing—a good thing in many human endeavors, including school administration. But the analogy doesn’t hold beyond that: a school’s “bottom line” is not measured in dollars of profit; it shouldn’t waste resources on winning “market share” away from other schools. And why should charter schools pay for advocacy out of per-pupil dollars? Those are taxpayer dollars meant for those children’s education; the students “carry” those dollars away from a regular public school and give them to a charter school.

Williams’s position is self-serving: the per-pupil “fee” for advocacy would go to him and others among the multitude of salaried ed reform advocates. This problem of self-interest goes far beyond dunning kids for advocacy dollars. The ed reform movement has turned itself into an industry—an industry made up of scores of nonprofit groups of every size that operate locally, statewide, and nationally. They employ hundreds of people, many at high salaries (Williams’s 2010 salary was over $265,000); they rake in money from private foundations, wealthy individuals, and government. (As critics note, George Bush’s signature ed reform program, No Child Left Behind, quickly became No Consultant Left Behind.) The nonprofit ed reform industry has a growth model: the more of its agenda that becomes law, the greater the demand for personnel to design, implement, study, and revise government mandated programs. To opponents, this looks like a racket. For ed reformers, it’s only, and always, about “helping children.”

It Takes a Bundle: The New School Board

In one model of democracy, local school board elections would be genuinely local. With a few hundred dollars, a stack of lawn signs, time to ring doorbells, and one or two endorsements, you could win a position of importance in your community: a say in how children would be educated and how a sizable amount of public money would be spent. In the real world until recently, only teachers unions and the Christian Right paid much attention to these elections (the Christian Right recognized their importance as a political stepping stone some thirty-five years ago); few citizens bothered to vote. Now the ed reformers have jumped in, turning school board races into battles requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars per candidate and outside operatives. This sabotages both rootedness in the community and access. A potential forum for grassroots democracy is lost.

Consider the November 1, 2011 school board race in Denver. Three candidates ran as a “reform slate” for the three available seats on the seven-member board. Colorado doesn’t limit contributions in school board elections, so money from the ed reform movement and corporate CEOs poured in.

According to the final tallies posted on Colorado’s Campaign Finance Disclosure website, the reform slate took in $633,807 (an average of $211,269 per candidate). Just six donors—including executives in the oil, health-care, construction, and financial industries—accounted for $293,000 of the total. One of them, Strata Capital president Henry Gordon, told the Colorado Statesman (October 17, 2011) that he wasn’t familiar with the candidates when he gave the slate $75,000 but simply complied with the request of another major donor. The market approach to ed reform appeals to business leaders in general. Depending on their industry, some of them also stand to gain from reform-generated contracts.

STAND FOR Children (headquartered in Portland, Oregon) gave the reform slate $88,511 in “non-monetary” contributions of staff support and canvassing services. When an outside organization hires and pays for staff and vote solicitors and then “donates” their work to a candidate, the work looks like grassroots organizing but isn’t. It is “astroturfing”—a term the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is believed to have coined in 1985. Astroturfing is political activity designed to appear unsolicited, autonomous, and community-rooted without actually being so.

Astroturfing is the modus operandi of the ed reform movement. Contributions of staff and services skyrocketed in Denver in 2011. Two years earlier, for example, the candidate who is now the pro-reform school board president received just $310 in non-monetary contributions. In 2011, in addition to the $88,511 from Stand for Children, the reform slate took in $34,231 in mostly non-monetary contributions from a 501(c)4 group called Great Schools for Great Kids (Education News Colorado, December 2, 2011). The original source of this money isn’t clear—501(c)4s are not required to disclose donors. But the record shows that Great Schools for Great Kids transferred money to a super PAC that has the same registered agent and office suite as a Stand for Children affiliate. The money sloshes around.

The six other candidates in the nonpartisan race raised a total of $212,973 (an average of $35,495 per candidate). This, too, seems like a lot of money for a school board race, and yet, on a per candidate basis, the reform slate took in six times as much money as opponents did. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed two candidates. One of them received $71,240 from the union in monetary and non-monetary donations; the other received $40,720. According to the Denver Post (December 2, 2011), the union spent another $86,000 through a committee called Delta 4.0 on mailers to advocate for the two candidates. Labor unions [501(c)5s in the IRS code] have tax exempt status, as do business associations and political campaign organizations. Unlike ed reformers backed by private funders, however, the teachers’ unions are mass organizations with established local affiliates and elected leaders accountable to dues-paying members. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, teachers unions are tied to schools, students, parents, and communities through their members.

Two of the three Denver reform candidates won; the third lost by only 142 votes to the union-endorsed incumbent. The deluge of money certainly helped the reformers retain their four-to-three majority on the board. Equally important, the ed reform operation reached a pivotal goal: to eclipse the longstanding power of the teachers’ unions in the political arena. The expense and acrimony of the race prompted a Democratic state representative to re-propose spending limits. Unfortunately, after Citizens United, limits can end up funneling even more money into the web of political committees, where it’s harder to track and where individual donors can remain anonymous.

Denver wasn’t the only absurdly expensive school board race in 2011. For other examples, click here.

The Company They Keep

Ed reformers liven up their websites with photographs of happy-looking school children, many of them minorities: the kids are busy at work or smiling into the camera. Meanwhile, their self-appointed benefactors ally with politicians who are slashing school budgets, cutting social services and benefits, gutting jobs programs, undercutting health-care reform, pummeling public sector unions, and passing laws that make it harder for the children’s parents to vote. The disconnect between what ed reformers claim to be doing for low-income children and what they actually bring about boggles the mind.

The poster child for this moral disconnect is former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor and ed reform celebrity Michelle Rhee. Rhee resigned her D.C. post in October 2010 after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed in his reelection bid. Within weeks, Rhee had set up a 501(c)4 advocacy organization called StudentsFirst; she announced a five-year fundraising goal of $1 billion. Rhee explained the purpose of her project this way (Daily Beast/Newsweek, December 6, 2010):

When you think about how things happen in our country—how laws get passed or policies are made—they happen through the exertion of influence. From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change. Education is no different.

Rhee had a hectic first year. She started 2011 with gigs as ed reform policy advisor to three conservative Republican governors: Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and Ohio’s John Kasich. Walker and Kasich provoked mass protests in their respective states by pushing through laws that rolled back not only the salaries and pensions of public sector workers (including teachers) but also their union rights. Rhee came under fire for helping to shape the teacher-related provisions of the laws. She tried to wash her hands of the matter by saying that she didn’t work on collective bargaining issues and didn’t endorse everything in the laws. But during a March 5, 2011 interview on Fox News, she asserted that unions “don’t have a place in getting involved in policies, and so I think that the move to try to limit what they bargain over is an incredibly important one.”

NO ONE knows how much money Rhee has raised so far or from whom: at this writing, the tax returns haven’t been filed, and she keeps her donors anonymous (although Rupert Murdoch is rumored to have given $50 million). Regardless, Rhee made a splashy debut as a high-rolling lobbyist. Her lobbying entity in Michigan, called United for Children Advocacy DBA StudentsFirst, spent $951,018 from January through July 2011 to influence the content of ed reform legislation. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, this made Rhee the biggest spending lobbyist in the state. She accounted for nearly half of the 11.6 percent increase in total lobbying spending compared to the same period in 2010. The state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, ranked sixth, spending $324,197.

Rhee also set up a super PAC in Michigan called Parents and Teachers for Putting Students First. It contributed $73,000 of its $155,000 bankroll to oppose the recall of Paul Scott, Republican chair of the state House Education Committee. Scott voted to cut K-12 spending while advancing ed reform bills. According to the Flint Journal (January 1, 2012), the Michigan Education Association contributed $140,000 to support the recall. Scott raised almost double that amount. Rhee’s major allies in this battle included the right-wing billionaire couple Dick and Betsy DeVos (his father co-founded Amway). The DeVos family has funded education privatization efforts around the country since 1990; they are among the biggest promoters of vouchers (per-pupil public funds that students can withdraw from the public system and use to pay for private schools, including religious schools); they also fund Christian Right schools. The recall effort succeeded by 197 votes.

In New Jersey, Rhee connected with two hedge-fund managers—David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican. The duo had recently joined the club of no-expertise-in-education billionaires dedicated to changing public schools. In March 2011, Tepper and Fournier launched a 501(c)4 called Better Education for Kids, Inc., and a super PAC called Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc. During the summer of 2011, the super PAC spent about $1 million on TV and radio commercials to promote Republican Governor Chris Christie’s ed reform program. In the fall, the super PAC gave $400,000 to support four pro-reform candidates for state Assembly: two, both Democrats, won; the two Republicans lost. Since then, the 501(c)4 has been offering New Jersey teachers $100 gift certificates to participate in private meetings about teacher evaluations. Tepper and Fournier’s super PAC and 501(c)4, it turns out, constitute the New Jersey branch of Rhee’s StudentsFirst. The ed reform network expands while remaining knit together by money and the strength of the moral crusade.

Jammed Down Their Throats: An Inside Story

Hubris is a core characteristic of today’s ed reformers. Of necessity, it informs their politicking. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the ed-world scandal that Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman created (his name reappears because he’s a prime mover of the political strategy). At a session of the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28, 2011, Edelman told his story of how the Illinois chapter of Stand, under his direction, shaped the state’s education reform bill and helped get it through the legislature. A video of Edelman’s presentation went viral on the Web, causing great embarrassment for Illinois lawmakers and teachers’ unions. They promptly denounced him and tried to correct the record. Edelman made a public apology, and Stand’s Illinois chapter appointed a new, if nominal, director. Still, Edelman’s account is extremely useful for understanding the attitude and style of ed reformers.

The Illinois law, which the governor signed on June 13, 2011, makes it easier to fire tenured teachers and revoke certification, eliminates seniority as the top consideration in layoffs, bases teacher evaluations on to-be-finalized measures of student performance, gives Chicago’s school administrators the unilateral power to lengthen the school day and year, and makes a strike by Chicago’s teachers nearly impossible.

Maneuvering for the law began with the 2010 elections to the state legislature. Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House for twenty-seven years, was running again. Edelman had raised more than $3.5 million for Stand’s Illinois war chest, mostly from Chicago’s wealthiest families, Republicans as well as Democrats. Since the substance of the story is in Edelman’s telling, here are excerpts from his talk (for the complete video, click here):

…So our analysis was he’s (Madigan) still going to be in power, and as such the raw politics were that we should tilt toward him, and so we interviewed thirty-six candidates in targeted races.…I’m being quite blunt here. The individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan. The press never picked up on it. We endorsed nine individuals, and six of them were Democrats, three Republicans….

…That was really a show of—indication to him that we could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That was the point. Luckily, it never got covered that way. That wouldn’t have worked well in Illinois. Madigan is not particularly well liked.

(Stand for Children, which gave $610,000 to its endorsed candidates, was one of the biggest contributors in the election.)…After the election, we went back to Madigan…and I confirmed the support (for Stand’s legislative proposal)….The next day he created an Education Reform Commission, and his political director called to ask for our suggestions who should be on it….In addition, we hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We raised $3 million for our political action committee. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. And I can tell you, there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.

…And so over the course of three months, with Advance Illinois [another ed reform group, $1.8 million from Gates in 2008] taking the negotiating lead…and Advance and Stand working in lockstep…they [the union negotiators] essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed.

…We fully expected (on the collective bargaining issues) that our collaborative problem-solving of three months would end, and we would have an impasse and go to war, and we were prepared. We had money raised for radio ads, and our lobbyists were ready. Well, to our surprise, and with [Chicago’s newly elected mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes, we were able to split the IEA [Illinois Education Association, a statewide union] from the Chicago Teachers Union.

…So the Senate backed it (the bill) 59 to zero, and then the Chicago Teachers Union leader started getting pushback from her membership for a deal that really, probably, wasn’t from their perspective strategic. She backed off for a little while, but the die had been cast. She had publicly been supportive. So we did some face-saving technical fixes in a separate bill, but the House approved it 112 to one.

… We’ve been happy to dole out plenty of credit, and now it makes it hard for folks leading unions in other states to say these types of reforms are terrible because their colleagues in Illinois just said these are great. So our hope and our expectation is to use this as a catalyst to very quickly make similar changes in other very entrenched states.

Astroturf—Says Who?

Jonah Edelman’s exploits offended not only Illinois legislators and unionists but also African American clergy in Chicago. posted an account by David A. Love on July 29, 2011 (available here):

Edelman attended a community meeting of black Chicago clergy with what observers have called a "slick dog and pony show."…According to Rev. Robin Hood, executive director of Clergy Committed to Community, SFC (Stand) wasn't the least bit interested in the concerns of the black community. "They were interested in getting people to see (the pro-charter film) Waiting for Superman....I found they were anti-union when we met with Stand for Children. It was all about money.”…Although SFC spread around a lot of money in Chicago communities, Rev. Hood emphasized that not one of the pastors in his group would take any of it.

The Edelman Affair is a sorry tale, not only because Jonah is the son of civil-rights leader Marian Wright Edelman and poverty analyst Peter Edelman, but also because Stand started out as an authentic grassroots organization in Oregon. When the scandal broke, longtime activists who had quit or become inactive “spoke out” online. Their reports are remarkably similar. The following is from an open letter to Edelman from Tom Olson, a decade-long volunteer and local leader, posted on the Parents Across America website on July 22, 2011. Olson and his wife had cancelled their sustaining memberships fifteen months earlier:

(I)n 2009, a number of us began to observe a serious erosion of your commitment to true grassroots operations....One of the “reforms” you and your staff began to tout was a call for legislation to create more “flexibility” for schools. This was obviously a thinly disguised attempt to erode negotiated teacher contract agreements and to create more charter schools. It was clearly modeled after some Colorado legislation you had pushed as you shifted to demanding attention to a national agenda supported mostly by corporate and Wall Street millionaires.

Dropping grassroots activism in favor of the ed reformers’ top-down strategy put Stand in sync with the rest of the movement. Ed reformers rarely concede, let alone lament, that they deal mostly in astroturf paid for by wealthy whites. So a frank assessment by Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, merits attention. In 2010 CER received $275,000 from Gates to launch the Media Bullpen, a baseball-themed website that rates education reporting according to reform criteria. (I gladly disclose that my article in Dissent, Winter 2011, “Got Dough: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools,” received a “strike out,” the lowest rating.) Allen posted the following online on December 19, 2011:

The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us. As a movement (and I've seen this first-hand for more than twenty years), we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting....Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan (flagship branch of 50CAN, $2.4 million from Gates in 2011), nor Stand, nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it....It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress.


A strong democracy requires a public education system, one that is excellent throughout and open to all. The United States failed even to aim for this standard until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in schools. Since then, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (which directed federal funds to low-income schools), the nation has made progress toward access and excellence. Too slowly, of course, but progress nonetheless (see Richard Rothstein’s March 8, 2011 analysis for the Economic Policy Institute). Ed reformers ignore the data, claiming that poor and minority children are no better educated now than thirty or forty years ago. In fact, progress has slowed only in the last decade, since No Child Left Behind was implemented and the reform agenda gained traction. Other factors may play a role, but the ed reformers certainly haven’t improved progress.

The line of battle for the future of public education is clear. Allied on one side are free-market zealots in the business community, pro-voucher social conservatives, and this peculiar breed of reformers whose political movers are often wealthy, private-school educated, white, male, and under the age of fifty. They are the junior plutocracy, strivers whose do-good goal twenty years ago would have been a seat on the board of the municipal art museum. They are typically clueless about public education. On the other side are public school students, their families, their teachers, and believers in the link between democracy and public education. The first side has money, powerful political connections, and an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations with paid staff. The other side has this: the ability to become a true grassroots movement. This looks like an unequal contest. But with sustained effort, citizen activists at the grassroots can trump hired guns on astroturf.

The 1 Percent for School Board

Louisiana: The usually low-key elections for state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education cost well over $1 million in the fall of 2011. According to state campaign finance data, a pro-reform funding group called the Alliance for Better Classrooms took in more than $750,000—40 percent of it from construction mogul Lane Grisby and family members ($200,000) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trust ($100,000). The state’s most important business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, gave pro-reform candidates at least $250,000, according toStateline, a news service sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Gates, $1.4 million to the Pew Research Center, 2011). The pro-reformers won six of the seven races.

Wake County, NC: The fall 2011 school board elections were the most expensive in the county’s history, costing more than $500,000, according to an early tally by the News & Observer website(November 8, 2011). At stake was a nationally acclaimed program that uses busing to achieve economic—and thereby racial—diversity. In 2009 multimillionaire conservative Art Pope (profiled in the New Yorker, October 10, 2011) spent heavily to get a Republican majority elected that would dismantle the program. The board promptly devised a plan to do that. The backlash against Pope, his allies, and the board produced a Democratic sweep of the five open seats in 2011. This vote for school integration made news around the country.

Correction: The original version of this article stated, “Three candidates ran as a ‘reform slate’ for the three open seats on the seven-member board.” Three candidates did run on a “reform slate,” however only two of the seats were open; the other was contested by an incumbent.

From Betsy Combier:
See also the following report on whether or not there should be an end to Mayoral control of the public schools in Chicago:

Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board?
A Look at the Evidence

and my 2007 article on the sham school board Mayor Bloomberg and Michael Cardozo want us to support:

Editorial: The New York City Department of Education is a Sham and Mike Bloomberg is the Flim-Flam Man