Category Archives: School Choice

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

All y’all that know me have probably figured out that I find it darn near impossible to hide my disdain for North Carolina’s hard-right legislature.

Since rising to power over the past five to seven years, they’ve spent the majority of their time together pushing through hateful legislation targeting marginalized populations.  The best part:  Pretty darn close to all of their decisions — think banning same sex marriage, creating incredibly gerrymandered voting districts, or forcing transgender citizens to use bathrooms that mirror their biological gender — have been overturned by the court system.  So while simultaneously waving their pocket Constitutions around, they pass law after law that are ruled unconstitutional.


That same legislature has also made it their goal to gut public education.

Perhaps most notably, they’ve created a system of “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to take public tax dollars to the charter schools and/or private schools of their choice.  The result are pretty darn amazing:  93 percent of voucher recipients are using public tax dollars to put their students in Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

Worse yet, the bulk of that funding is going to schools that aren’t held accountable for performance at all.  As a parent of a second grader, I support the innovation potential and alternatives that school choice represent — but as a taxpayer I also expect a return on that investment, something that’s hard to prove when millions of dollars are channeled into schools with no real oversight or accountability and where teachers don’t have to be licensed or certified.

What drives me the craziest is that while simultaneously funneling monies into schools that are not held accountable for student performance, the SAME legislature passed a sweeping bill in 2013 — patriotically named the Excellent Public Schools Act — that is specifically designed to HOLD public schools accountable for student performance.

The law was odious all the way around, stripping tenure rights from teachers, putting all teachers on one year contracts, revamping the teacher pay scale to nudge veterans out of the classroom, and instituting rigorous retention policies for students in third grade.  Thankfully — like most of the legislation passed by our ham-handed politicians — much of the law has been reversed by our state court system in subsequent years.

One piece of that legislation remains in place, however:  An A-F grading system for public schools based on scores earned by students on standardized tests given at the end of every school year.

Here’s how it works:  Every public school — and remember, that DOESN’T include private schools taking public dollars — is given a single letter grade that is supposed to make it easy for parents to determine how their child’s school is performing.  Go to a school that is rated an A?  It’s time for a celebration!  Have a child in a school that is rated an F?  It’s time to abandon ship.  Apply for an opportunity scholarship and run to one of those private schools popping up all around you.  Never mind the fact that similar school accountability systems in other states have been abject failures, open to constant revision and manipulation by influential politicians and communities.  Let’s do this!

But it gets worse:  Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is based strictly on performance and only 20 percent is based on actual student growth — and that’s an improvement over the original proposal that didn’t include student growth as a consideration for school ratings at all.

What’s the consequence of emphasizing performance over growth in school ratings?

Schools and systems serving high percentages of students living in poverty are at a real disadvantage.  Need proof?  Then check out this WRAL review of the 2015-2016 School Performance Grades:

“The data show school grades continue to correlate closely with the poverty levels of schools. Among all schools last year that received a D or F, 93 percent had enrollments with at least 50 percent of students from low-income families. Conversely, among schools that received at least a B, 75.7 percent had enrollments with less than 50 percent of students from low-income families, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Simple translation:  Your child is WAY more likely to go to a school labeled as a failure if you live in a poor community than if you live in a middle to upper middle class community — even IF the kids in your child’s classes are moving forward faster than peers in wealthier schools.  After all, growth doesn’t matter much to North Carolina’s legislators.  Final performance does.

Think about the logical consequences of that simple truth.

Year after year, poor communities — which both nationally and here in North Carolina are often disproportionately populated by people of color — are told that their public schools are failing children.  That discourages investment in the community — what business is going to relocate to a region where every school is rated a D or an F — and depresses home values.  Finding high-paying jobs and building long-term wealth both become more difficult, making it even harder to advance as an individual OR as a community.

Then, here in North Carolina, parents from those same poor communities are offered “opportunity scholarships” to take their students to private schools that are NOT REQUIRED to report at all on their performance.  Worse yet, those private schools often spend less than half of what is spent on a student in a public school.  Teachers are underpaid and uncertified, programs like school lunches and athletics aren’t offered, and extra services for students with special needs are not always available.

That feels a heck of a lot like institutional racism to me.  Am I wrong?


Related Radical Reads:

Want to Fix Education?  Start Addressing Poverty.

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools





What Can Voucher Fans Learn from the Space X Mission?

As a science teacher, I've spent the better part of the past week pretty darn geeked about the launch of Space X's Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule — as well as its subsequent docking with the International Space Station. 

It's a historic week, marking the first time that a private company has launched a vehicle that has successfully docked with the ISS. 

I imagine Elon Musk — the billionaire entrepreneur behind Space X is JUST as geeked.  After all, with their success, Space X has triggered a $1.6 BILLION dollar contract with NASA to shuttle supplies — and eventually astronauts — into space 12 more times in the next few years.

In many ways, American taxpayers should be pretty geeked too

After all, by privatizing space travel, NASA is creating competition — there are no fewer than 5 other companies working on vehicles that can replace the recently retired Space Shuttles — and saving heaping mounds of cash. 

Need proof?

Each Space Shuttle launch used to cost the American taxpayer $450 million dollars.  Each of the next 12 Space X launches will cost the American taxpayer $133 million dollars.


Need MORE proof?

Russia — the only country with the ability to launch humans into space — is currently charging America $60 million dollars PER ASTRONAUT for rides to the International Space Station.  When Space X finalizes its own people-craft — which should happen around the year 2015 — they plan to charge America $20 million dollars per astronaut for rides to the ISS.

This should all be GREAT news, shouldn't it? 

How could ANYONE find fault in a story about a public-private partnership that saves taxpayers a heaping cheese-ton of cold hard cabbage?

More importantly, given the success of the Space X program, how could ANYONE be opposed to our government pushing EVEN MORE public-private partnerships in order to save money?  If public-private partnerships can save our space program, couldn't they also save our post offices, our police stations and our National Parks?

Couldn't public-private partnerships save our schools? 

Wouldn't private companies find ways to do education cheaper if they had a paying audience — and couldn't we create that paying audience by giving taxpayers vouchers that they could spend anywhere that they wanted?  

The answer is a resounding hell no and here's why:  Just like Elon Musk and Space X targeted their efforts towards supporting the space program of one of the richest countries on earth, voucher-inspired corporate "educators" would likely target their efforts towards serving the richest parents and communities.

They'll set tuition at $2,000 -$3,000 beyond whatever local vouchers are providing — which is an easy reach for middle and upper class parents looking for a private school education but an impossible dream for poor families living from pay check to pay check. 

Intentionally pricing out the poorest students means, for the most part, avoiding many of the expensive challenges that come along with fighting against the crippling effects of poverty

And for the savvy businessmen behind voucher-driven schools, avoiding the effects of poverty is a bottom-line issue.  When the students you serve come from stable families who have the means to provide enrichment and support beyond school, you are less likely to need subsidized lunch programs, social workers and extensive slates of expensive remedial classes.

What's more, intentionally targeting the richest communities creates a greater growth trajectory for a business-driven school.  Selling extras like piano lessons, tutoring programs or spring break trips to Europe is a whole lot easier when your building serves middle and upper class kids.

Billionaire entreprenuers aren't stupid, y'all.  They recognize a money-making opportunity when they see it — and just like Musk spent little time supporting the space programs of poor countries, corporate education reformers will spend little time supporting schools in our poorest communities. 


That means if we believe that successfully educating EVERY child is a public interest worth pursuing, vouchers are a crappy alternative for education simply because they create little real incentive for businesses to work in the poorest communities. 

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

Boortz on School Choice

More on School Choice

Is it Time for A La Carte Education?


Is it Time for A La Carte Education?

I had a bit of an epiphany this weekend, y’all:  We live in an a la carte world—and a la carte worlds are not comfortable places for organizations like our public school systems. 

Need an example?

Then let’s look at the source of my weekend’s curse quota:  The greedy corporate thieves Time Warner Cable and the Dish Network.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’d know that I ditched my cable service completely back in January.  I’d grown tired of dropping my child’s college education funds $100 a month for access to hundreds of channels when I was only watching 10. 

So instead of paying the money hungry sons-a-guns Time Warner Cable or Dish Network, I bought me a Roku box and signed up for Netflix Streaming and Hulu Plus

Combined with a decent digital antenna and the same major networks I grew up with, we’re doing just fine in the Ferriter house—and saving a TON of cash while we’re at it.  My monthly outlay for television:  16 bucks.

Things came to a bit of a head for me on Saturday, though.  You see, the one thing I can’t get through Netflix, Hulu, or the major networks is Carolina Hurricanes Hockey

Continue reading

Read This: Brown’s Take on Waiting for Superman

"Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, holds up my school, SEED, as an exemplar of
opportunity and success for educating at-risk youth, but really only portrays
it through the admissions process. Teachers and classrooms aren’t spotlighted.

SEED, a tuition-free
college-prep, five-day-a-week boarding school, located in Southeast D.C., is an
outstanding example of what charter schools are meant for; it’s an innovative
alternative to a traditional public school and a place for responsibly
experimenting with new models of wrap-around services. It currently serves
around 325 students in Washington, D.C. and there’s a new SEED School in
Baltimore that is several years away from growing to its full scale.


I love my job teaching
English at SEED, and I receive the space and support to excel at it.  So what makes it work? Many of the most
important parts are replicable en masse in the public system."


Dan Brown—a brilliant young teacher who is also a colleague of mine in the Teacher Leaders Network—happens to work at one of the charter schools spotlighted and celebrated as an alternative to the abyss in the new edu-bashing film, Waiting for Superman.

In this post, Dan points out several practical changes that public schools—which serve the VAST majority of American students—can make today to improve teaching and learning.

What I like about Dan's bit is that he clearly demonstrates that the conditions that make him so successful at his current school aren't afforded to teachers working in comparable public schools.

That's such an important message for policymakers to hear. We're so willing to celebrate charter schools but we're unable—or unwilling—to ensure that public school teachers have the same kinds of working conditions and opportunities.

How does THAT make sense?

The Geographical Ball and Chain. . .

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody.  In it, he explores how technology is changing human interactions—and he shares an interesting example:

In 2007, several conservative parishes of the Episcopal Church in Virginia decided to split from the American branch of their church after an openly gay bishop was ordained.  The parishes chose to align themselves with the NIGERIAN branch of the Episcopal Church—whose views (they believed) better matched their own.

Shirky argues that this shows a shift in our thinking about how we organize ourselves.  Typically, humans have used geography as the primary factor when determining how to join together with others.  In the church example, we’ve always aligned ourselves with others who were physically close to us AND shared our views.

Technology has made it possible to align with anyone, however.  While it would be nice for the parishes in Virgina to find others with like minded beliefs who were also nearby, they were able to place a priority on like minded beliefs instead of geography when connecting.

So my question is this:  Will we eventually see similar changes in the ways that people think about schools?

Think about it:  Right now, people send their students to schools based on geography.  You go to the building that is closest to you, whether you are satisfied with that building or not.

Is it possible that technology may change all of that and allow families to select schools based on design and ideas that best represent their personal preferences and values INSTEAD of choosing schools based on physical location?

And if so, how will that change our work as teachers?  What impact will it have on us as taxpayers?  On our nation’s guarantee of providing a sound basic education for all children?  On any efforts at all to provide a uniform curriculum?

Whaddya’ think?