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Diane Ravitch: ‘Public Education Is in a Fight for Survival’

The 25-year experiment with charter schools has been a failure, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said this week at the annual conference of the Network for Public Education.

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Bill Raden




The 25-year national gamble on charter schools has been a losing bet, resulting in a series of missed opportunities and creating a tragic distraction from what most education researchers agree are the real inequities underlying the so-called achievement gap, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said this week.

Something of a patron saint and unifying voice for battle-fatigued public school teachers across the country, Ravitch was in Oakland for the fourth annual conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE), the largest gathering of education reformers opposed to the corporate-styled privatization of the “school choice” movement.

Ravitch, NPE president and co-founder, told the conference that reformers’ first goal “is to stop privatization because privatization will end public education. Public education is in a fight for survival. Our mission is to awaken every citizen to the threat to take away what belongs to all of us.”

Organizers estimated that about 500 researchers, parent and teacher activists, district officials, union leaders and education writers attended the conference. Thousands more live-streamed the weekend’s 42 workshops and panels on NPE’s Facebook page.

Afterwards, Ravitch, 79, told Capital & Main that privatization has undermined an institution that is foundational to our democracy.

“What the privatizers are doing is they keep selling the same snake oil, school choice, as the answer to the problem,” said Ravitch, research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “School choice doesn’t answer any problem. The biggest correlation in education is between poverty and test scores. If you think the test scores are too low, go to the root causes.”

The root causes, Ravitch said, “are people can’t feed their kids, people live in violent neighborhoods. When the kids go to charter schools and charter schools take the same kids, they get the same results. Sometimes they get worse results.”

Now in its fourth year, NPE’s membership has swollen into the thousands, boosted by the election of Donald Trump and widespread dismay over his appointment of libertarian extremist and avowed public school opponent Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. In some sense the organization is a logical extension of Ravitch’s highly influential education blog, her widely followed Twitter feed and her body of writing. That writing includes The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the surprise 2010 bestseller in which she detailed her intellectual journey from being an early supporter of charters to the dawning realization that market-based education reform isn’t a reform at all.

Reforms, Ravitch said, always ask, “How we can make the public schools better? Do we need more teacher training? Do we need better tests? Do we need smaller classes? Do we need more funding? Do we need desegregation?

“I mean, these are the questions that you ask if you’re a reformer. What is now called reform is, ‘How can we replace the public schools with private management?’ And that is not reform; that is privatization.”

But if ending privatization is their objective, Ravitch and her network have their work cut out. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws since Minnesota wrote the first charter bill in 1991. Over the past decade alone, charter enrollment has nearly tripled to an estimated 3.1 million nationwide (with over 600,000 students, California’s charter population is the nation’s largest; Los Angeles’ 156,263 charter students is the highest district enrollment in the country).

And although charters enroll only 5 percent of America’s K-12 students, to the cash-strapped, high-poverty urban districts that have been targeted for charter expansions, that number represents a shift of roughly $38.7 billion per year in lost tax dollars and mass closings of neighborhood schools.

Complicating matters, hard-hit districts and demoralized teachers looking for legislative relief have only found themselves stymied by prominent, putatively liberal Democrats in high places. Governors in some of the bluest states in the union, notably California’s Jerry Brown, have consistently blocked common sense attempts to slow the growth of charters or get them to play by the same accountability and transparency rules that govern public schools.

Obama education secretary Arne Duncan is still bitterly remembered for 2009’s Race to the Top, a coercive, $5 billion “doubling down” on the disastrous legacy of punitive, high-stakes testing and charter school expansion bequeathed by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

“This was a degree of federal intervention at the local level that was unprecedented,” Ravitch said. “And we can look back now and [ask], ‘Did it succeed?’ And the answer is, ‘No, it failed.’ So I’ve often asked myself, because I could go through chapter and verse of why it failed, and why the new emphasis on testing? It failed because every part of it was based on no evidence at all.”

With the ascension of DeVos to the country’s top education job, however, history may finally again be in public education’s corner. Ravitch announced in Oakland that NPE Action, the group’s political arm, will challenge any candidate caught climbing into bed with any part of the Trump/DeVos agenda. It backed up that vow in last summer’s Virginia gubernatorial primary when NPE volunteers helped to widen the margin of victory for “moderate” Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam over Tom Perriello, a self-described “progressive” backed by the pro-charter PAC Democrats for Education Reform.

“There have been many instances where we have been able to make a difference,” Ravitz said. “When Texas was considering vouchers, we were able to get thousands of our members who live in Texas to talk to their legislators and to email and to visit them. A lot of what we try to do is expose malfeasance and show where the money’s coming from. We keep people abreast of the emerging research consensus [that] charters are not better than public schools, and they’re very often much worse.”

Ravitch doesn’t see NPE’s network-building activism decisively turning the charter tide any time soon, certainly not as long as Trump remains in the White House. But when asked what that success will look like, she quickly ticks off four features:

  • Education decisions will be based on evidence, not the whims of billionaires.
  • The public will recognize that high-stakes testing has failed and that we need to rethink our idea of “accountability.” Tests should be used only for diagnostic purposes, not to rank and rate students, teachers, or schools. Standardized tests should be used sparingly, not annually.
  • A consensus will have emerged that a great nation must have a great system of public schools, not a patchwork of privatization and school choice.
  • We will have reached agreement that the root causes of student success are in the socioeconomic status of the family — family income and education. Long-term, we must stop blaming teachers and schools and start taking action to reduce income inequality and poverty.

“Success is when the billionaires realize that they are actually harming schools and ruining the teaching profession,” she said. “When they stop trying to tell teachers how to teach and stop trying to turn education into a business, they will do something truly useful, like opening medical clinics in every school or turning their philanthropy to other endeavors where they no longer do harm.”


Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

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Bill Raden




Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”
— San Bernardino math teacher


Students were crying,” says Cristian Aguilar, recalling the Wednesday after Election Day, 2016. “Parents were calling me; there was just a lot of tension, a lot of emotions. … Because whether or not they were born here, they still felt threatened. They knew someone — either their families, their friends or their neighbors — that were [going to be] affected.” The man who had famously launched his candidacy by slurring America’s Latino immigrants was now the president-elect.

Most of all, the students of San Jose’s nearly 80 percent Latino Hoover Middle School were acutely aware that if Donald Trump made good on his threats to revoke DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Aguilar, their 25-year-old public school teacher, would soon again be living under the murky cloud of deportation. Ironically, he had long made it a point to share his own immigration tale with his kids as a means of inspiring them and to connect with their families.

For a melting pot like California, his story is far from unique. Of the state’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. But with a March 5 deadline looming, California’s DACA teachers may soon find themselves locked out of jobs and careers.

Trump has lately rejected bipartisan immigration compromises that would have granted eventual citizenship to young immigrants like Aguilar, but which didn’t provide any funding for the president’s proposed border wall, or include White House demands for the termination of the current visa diversity lottery and deep cuts to the country’s traditional family reunification priorities.

“[Trump] wants to decrease legal immigration by about half, which is not something that’s ever been done in our country’s history,” pointed out California Sate University, Los Angeles anthropology professor Beth Baker, who specializes in immigration. “That’s very disconcerting, particularly because immigrants are really the motor of the economy.”

But for California’s DACA educators, losing their right to teach would be a crippling setback to a public school system in the throes of a chronic teacher shortage and in which one in eight school children have an undocumented parent. It would also mark a bitter reversal to what has been a quintessentially American odyssey of immigrant resolve and aspiration. Here are three of those 5,000 DACA teacher stories.


The Organizer

Aguilar was 10 when he crossed the border from Mexico with a brother in order to join his parents, who had been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Despite growing up without the legal rights and expectations taken for granted by birthright Americans, he quickly distinguished himself as a math prodigy after a bilingual teacher recognized his ability and tutored him, in Spanish, after school.

“It wasn’t until junior and senior year that I really found out what that meant, being undocumented,” he recalled. “Not being able to drive; not being able to apply for financial aid when it came to college applications. … I started noticing the discrepancies between my peers’ and my education.”

Despite having the grades and being accepted by California State University, Stanford University and the University of California, he settled for De Anza, a two-year community college in neighboring Cupertino. That’s when fate and Sacramento Democrats intervened with the introduction of 2011’s California Dream Act, which extended state financial aid to undocumented students at public universities and colleges. As battle lines formed over the contentious measure, Aguilar threw himself into the political fight, organizing students throughout Northern California as part of a campus immigrant-rights group that also lobbied the legislature.

Though the new law paved his way into UC Berkeley, it was the 2012 implementation of DACA by the Obama administration and Aguilar’s winning of temporary legal status that enabled him to set his sights on giving back to his community: “That’s when I knew I wanted to be there for students, especially other students of color, who have been marginalized and who have been under-represented for so long. Knowing [first-hand] the difficulty of being part of an educational system that really pushed us out — students who ‘don’t belong.'”

The Object Lesson

Ever since being brought from Mexico as a young child to Southern California by a mother determined to leave behind a nightmarish marriage and secure the best possible future for her daughter, Elysa Chavez (her real name has been withheld at her request), a third-year DACA high school math teacher in San Bernardino County, has been preparing for the best but girding for the worst.

“I can’t even believe that this is happening,” Chavez said of the immigration impasse. “The administration talks about getting rid of chain migration and bringing in people based on their merits and degrees, and the basic language — but I have a degree in math, which not a lot of people like. I teach math in a low-income community. I have a master’s degree. I speak the language. I pay my taxes. Everything that Trump is looking for, [DACA teachers] have. I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”

She is not alone. In the months since Donald Trump announced the elimination of DACA and began threatening to abandon its recipients, Chavez has seen a pall of fear fall over her school’s 85 percent Hispanic students, particularly among the freshman and even some sophomores, who were too young to make DACA’s 15-year-old age threshold before it was canceled.

“What I have seen is students that are reluctant to share that they’re undocumented, when a couple of years back it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained.

To offer them hope and encourage them to open up, Chavez tells them her own up-by-her-bootstraps story of attending Cal Poly Pomona at a time when there was no DACA or chance of a teaching career, or even financial aid for undocumented college hopefuls. (Chavez graduated just before DACA came online.)

“It’s tough, but it’s something that can be done,” she asserted. “So whenever they have questions, they come and they ask me. I have a feeling that I comfort them, but they do the opposite for me. They just make me worried, because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen with them, and are they going to see education as something that is valuable?’ Because I have a feeling that they might think, ‘What’s the point of me getting good grades if at the end of the day I might get deported?’”

The Activist

Like many California DACA teachers, 25-year-old Angelica Reyes, who is a first-year Advanced Placement history teacher in South Los Angeles, traces her decision to become an educator to the inspiration provided by her own high school history teacher.

“I grew up in East L.A. and I saw a lot of disparities, both in the education that we were receiving, but also in huge wealth inequity,” she remembered. “This teacher used to engage me in a lot of really interesting conversations and challenged me to go beyond just inquiring, to try to change something in my community. So, I was involved in the project that brought in a grocery store to the community.”

Reyes said this campaign transformed the way that she saw herself and her relationship to the community. “I felt like the best way to make folks feel empowered and like they mattered was through education.”

So, that’s what she did. She was at Pasadena City College when she received DACA protections soon after the program came into being. That enabled her to do what had previously been unthinkable: complete both her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles and enter a master’s program in UCLA’s school of education.

“There wasn’t ever a question in my mind of whether I was going to go to college,” she recalled. “I knew that I was going to be more … My mom would always remind me that folks who have an education have more power, more agency and they’re able to better advocate for themselves and for folks like them. Of course, I was worried about not being able to work in the field that I’ve chosen, but that’s still a fear today.”

It hit home in September with Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. Like the other teachers in this story, Reyes came to school that day to find her kids terrified both for her sake and by the specter of the uncertainty and instability it would bring if she were removed as their teacher.

“That day,” she remembered, “it was a lot of validating their existence, their feelings, and also making sure that they understood that DACA in the first place wasn’t something that was granted to us. It’s something that a lot of folks fought for, and that’s where our communities get their power from, from advocacy and from grassroots organizing. I let them know that our federal government is very strong, but our communities are strong, too, when we come together. We can stop deportation.”

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L.A. School Board Set to Rumble Over Charter Schools

The stage has been set for a Tuesday showdown between charter school operators and the Los Angeles Unified School District office charged with charter school oversight.

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Bill Raden




Photos by Pandora Young

The stage has been set for an apparent showdown between charter school operators and the Los Angeles Unified School District office charged with charter school oversight, when the LAUSD school board votes on an unprecedented 14 recommendations for charter petition denials at Tuesday’s special board meeting.

The meeting had originally been scheduled to consider 34 charter school petitions — including 28 renewals — as part of a routine formality, in which the board signs off on staff recommendations after months of rigorous vetting of the applications by its charter division.

Late last week, however, 12 of the 14 denials that were posted on the school board’s website were revealed to have been triggered after four defiant charter operators had refused to include mandated regulatory language in their petitions. The action, which consisted of the charters essentially writing in their own diluted versions of district rules, was widely seen as a signal of charter-industry impatience to get regulatory relief from the recently elected pro-charter board majority, after that industry had spent $9.7 million on the most expensive campaign in LAUSD board history.

“We have known that seeking better policies could cause complications for our petitions,” the schools’ CEOs admitted in a joint statement released Wednesday. “This is a risk we have been willing to take. We remain hopeful that the LAUSD board on November 7th will do the right thing for students, make decisions based on the academic, fiscal and governance quality of our schools, and approve our petitions.”

The gambit puts at risk eight schools from the district’s largest charter management organization (CMO), the 25-school Alliance College-Ready Public Schools franchise, and two schools from the mid-range Magnolia Public Schools group. Petitions for a new Equitas Academy charter and a new STEM Preparatory Elementary also triggered rejections.

Those CMOs are part of a larger, 17-member coalition known as the Los Angeles Advocacy Council that had been negotiating over the past year with the district to roll back so-called District Required Language (DRL). The boilerplate contract provisions, which are required by most charter authorizers, have been developed over the past 20 years by the district as a way to ensure that charter petitioners conform to both state and federal education codes, while providing a measure of transparency to stakeholders. The language covers everything from admissions policies to expulsion and disciplinary procedures, to compliance with state rules governing English language learners and special education guarantees.

The charters contend that recommendations by district staff are inconsistent with site visits made by the charter division and that the district’s Office of Inspector General exercises too much authority in charter school investigations that lack transparency, go on too long and too often result in technical “material revision denials” of otherwise academically sound programs. But the dispute also echoes a more fundamental philosophical conflict between the communitarian values of public schools and the corporate management style of charters.

Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are legally held to a far higher degree of accountability under the law in exchange for freedom from many of the rules that govern the operation of public schools. Charters are thus required to renew their petitions —which serve as both a kind of school constitution and bill of rights — every three or five years to show that they not only meet state-mandated minimum criteria for academic achievement but also demonstrate significant performance gains in student achievement. But because charters typically tend to see test scores as the only metric that matters to a renewal or revocation, whereas districts have a legal responsibility to weigh competing measures of financial and educational viability and social equity, authorizers and the authorized often find themselves at odds.

The present controversy was dramatically foreshadowed in September when pro-charter board member Ref Rodriguez was forced to resign the school board presidency after being charged with three felony counts connected to his alleged laundering of $24,000 of his own money in donations to his 2015 campaign.

Though the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has closed the complaint until the criminal charges are resolved, Rodriguez’s refusal to step down from the board leaves his fellow majority members in a hazy ethical light. A board reversal of the denial recommendations, which the pro-public school minority would presumably oppose, would require the tie-breaking vote of an accused felon to pass.

In a district that rarely rejects charter petitions, and whose 277 active charter schools makes LAUSD the largest district charter authorizer in the nation, risking rejection is probably a safe gamble for a charter. Should the board choose to stand by its charter division staff, the schools would simply appeal to the State Board of Education in Sacramento or the politically appointed Los Angeles County Office of Education, where only last year Magnolia received reversals after the previous LAUSD board rejected three renewals over financial improprieties arising from the chain’s ties to an alleged immigration fraud ring run by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Regardless of how the board’s new majority passes this first significant test of its mettle, the charter division is standing firm.

“We must ensure that the independent charters we oversee are safe, publically accountable and provide learning environments that support student success,” a district spokesperson said in a written statement on Thursday. “While we cannot speculate on what will happen at Tuesday’s board meeting, we remain committed to providing options for our students and families.”

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Branding Irony: OC High School Students Rebel Against Confederate Mascot

Co-published by The Daily Beast

Will an Orange County high school drive Old Dixie down and replace its Confederate-soldier mascot of 50 years?

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Charles Davis




Whistling Dixie: Savanna High School’s football-team version of its mascot.

An Orange County icon
of white supremacy
is being challenged.

Co-published by The Daily Beast

Savanna High School has a Confederate soldier for a mascot, and defenders of  “Johnny Rebel” — chosen by the student body back during the civil rights movement — argue that the branding is part of their heritage. However, Savanna High School is not in the Deep South, where one might expect such a controversy, but in Southern California’s Orange County, a few miles from Disneyland.

Savanna High School's Johnny Rebel mascot.

Savanna High School’s Johnny Rebel mascot.

Lay-Onna Clark, 15, didn’t give it much thought until she and some friends formed a black student union last August, the start of her junior year. It was when they started designing T-shirts that it really hit them: “The mascot supports white supremacy — that one race is superior to another,” she said in an interview. Indeed, it literally represents one race fighting to enslave another.

According to a flier handed out by anti-mascot activists at a Thursday, November 2 meeting of the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees, the predominantly white students in the class of 1967 who chose to be represented by Johnny Rebel — a term for a Confederate soldier, and the stage name of a prominent white supremacist musician — did so to send “a clear message that people of color were not welcome at Savanna High School or in Anaheim.”

Savanna H.S. Alumnus:
“1999 is when the Confederate flag became a problem. I was in the basketball program… and we hosted Compton High School.”

A lot has changed in 50 years. Whites now make up less than 10 percent of the student body at Savanna and, as of the 2010 Census, are but a slim majority in Anaheim. But a lot of things haven’t changed, too. The election of President Donald Trump, and subsequent displays of explicit white supremacy in the streets of cities like Charlottesville, Virginia (and a 2016 Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim), have served as a reminder of that, driving home what “heritage” means with respect to the Confederacy.

Clark said realizing the meaning of Johnny Rebel — depicted on a large quilt hung behind the board of trustees as a soldier clad in gray, charging with rifle in hand — led her and three friends to campaign for its removal. They approached the school board last fall with their concerns, and the board has responded by initiating a process that seems likely to see Savanna’s mascot at the very least rebranded.

On October 25 the Orange County Register reported that 56 percent of students had voted to “rebrand” Johnny Rebel, with another 18 percent expressing support for doing away with the mascot altogether; 26 percent sided with the status quo. The vote came eight years after the school tore down an old, dilapidated statue of the Confederate mascot, the paper noted.

The non-binding vote came after a student-led forum on the issue, and after the school devoted a week to raising “awareness and understanding” of the mascot’s place in history.

“I believe this could be a teachable moment for the entire country,” Superintendent Michael Matsuda said ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Gabriel San Román graduated from Savanna in 2000. A staff writer for OC Weekly, he’s written about how, when he was there, the school still featured the battle flag of the pro-slavery South at its pep rallies. In an interview, he recalled how the school’s “rebel” theme used to be even more explicitly tied to white supremacy, and how that required changing.

“Nineteen ninety-nine is when the Confederate flag became a problem. I was in the basketball program… and we hosted Compton High School.” With many black students expected to attend the game, the schools’ respective principals decided something should probably be done about the large symbol of white supremacy in the gymnasium. “So what they had the cheerleaders do is make a bunch of signs, and those signs were awkwardly placed… to cover the shame of the Confederate flag during that game.”

After that, the school began quietly phasing out the Confederacy.

“I think it’s happening now because Anaheim has changed, demographically, and with that so has the political makeup of the school board,” San Román said of the latest controversy. As the city has become less white, it’s become more liberal.

A Johnny Rebel supporter warned of a slippery slope where we “remove all the things in the history books that offend people.”


But change should be not overstated. Since she began campaigning against her school’s mascot, Clark said she’s discovered that white supremacy still lurks in the halls.

Social media — “Snapchat and Instagram” — is where the abuse is most brazen. “They were calling us niggers and all kinds of stuff, saying they were going to jump me after school,” she said. She no longer takes the bus home from school; instead, she waits in the principal’s office for her mother to pick her up.

But “it’s not about feeling safe,” Clark said. “I think the mascot is more about people feeling comfortable being themselves.” She’s not sure what should replace it — “maybe a bird?” — but she wants one “that will make everybody feel equal. Not just for the African-American community, also for the Latino community, the Korean community, Pacific-Islanders. The majority of people in this district. It’s not just African-American and white. It’s not that type of battle.”

Yet it’s not a battle without resistance. At the November 2 board meeting, several people, including one man from out of town who said he read about the debate in a local paper, spoke in favor of keeping Johnny Rebel.

And Jeanne Tenno, of the class of 1976, said she is “proud to be a Savanna Rebel,” and warned of a slippery slope where we “remove all the things in the history books that offend people — the bad history.”

“Let’s correct the historical record,” she continued. “Give back the American Indians their land; the land that belonged to Mexico; the kingdom of Hawaii. And let’s return the land that was stolen from the interned Japanese. Because that’s what this is becoming.”

A decision on whether to head down that road could come as soon as today, November 6, when the Savanna school board will host a special forum with students at the high school.


Update: Anaheim’s school district voted Nov. 6 to rebrand Savanna High School’s mascot — shedding the Confederate image and name of Johnny Rebel, but retaining the school’s  “rebel” identity.

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Baby Money: Can Cash Allowances Help Young Brains Grow?

Higher income has been found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.

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Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Co-published by The American Prospect

Ever since the election of a Republican majority in Congress in 1994, the trend in assistance to the poor has been to reduce it. Work requirements for recipients, time limits on assistance and stricter eligibility conditions to receive food stamps were all part of the 1996 welfare reform overhaul signed by President Bill Clinton. The result was fewer kids receiving aid, and those who did received less money. In 2015, while 15 million American children, or about 21 percent, grow up in homes with incomes below the official poverty line—which many children’s policy experts maintain is set far too low—just 2.3 million of them received welfare benefits, down from a peak of 9.5 million in 1993. (The poverty rate was even higher in California.)

But what if mothers in poverty received a cash handout every month, beginning shortly after they gave birth—no questions asked? And what if, by enabling those moms to buy toys or books, move to a different neighborhood, afford better childcare, attend continuing education classes, or just reduce the amount of stress they experience from not having to worry about money all the time, those extra funds resulted in their children’s brains growing more than they would have without the money?

That’s the idea behind a groundbreaking study conceived by Greg J. Duncan, an economist at University of California, Irvine who studies the relationship between family income and children’s achievement and attainment as adults. Already five years in to the work, Duncan and the team of three social scientists and one neuroscientist he has assembled hope to begin recruiting subjects next year.

“Politically, the question is very important,” said Katherine Magnuson, an associate director of the Institution for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and one of the designers of the study. “People in Washington talk about the pluses and minuses of programs that put money in people’s pockets or take it out, and we need to understand the consequences of their decisions in terms of children.”

Evidence that poverty manifests in children’s development has been building for years. “Childhood socioeconomic status is strongly associated with IQ, graduation rates and test scores,” said Kimberly G. Noble, MD Ph.D., the team’s neuroscientist and a pediatrician and associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The gap emerges early and widens through the elementary school years. Children who score poorly relative to other students on intelligence assessment but come from families of high socioeconomic status—which combines income, parent education level, parent occupation and occupational prestige—see their scores go up, relative to other kids, over time; kids who score high early on but are in low socioeconomic-status families see their scores fall.

Early in her career, Noble wanted to know which particular cognitive skills were associated with socioeconomic status. A 2007 paper she and colleagues published in Developmental Science showed that the greatest differences were in language, memory and executive function (the ability to plan and focus). Just the skills, in other words, most needed in a 21st century economy.

Exposure to violence has been shown to effectively age children prematurely, according to research published in 2012.

That led Noble to more questions: “How do differences in cognitive skill relate to differences in brain structure?” In 2012, she and colleagues found that higher family income is associated with a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain believed to govern memory and emotion. Income was also found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.

In 2015, Noble published data that extended this finding to the cerebral cortex. Four labs, independently of one another, have since replicated this research. While it wouldn’t be possible to predict a kid’s brain size from his parents’ income—plenty of kids from well-off homes had smaller surface areas to their brains than some of the kids in poorer homes—Noble’s paper showed the effect was strongest among the most disadvantaged children. “The proportional differences in income were associated with greater differences in brain structure among the worst-off kids,” she said.

Media trumpeted the research with headlines like, “How Poverty Changes the Brain.” But Noble knew that her results were only associational. “We can say differences in family income are associated with differences in brain structure but we can’t say what’s causing what,” she said. “Is it other things, meaning that changing income might not make a difference?”

Then, several years ago, fate intervened. Noble met with a graduate student whom Columbia had randomly matched her with to mentor, and they got to chit-chatting. The student asked about her research, and after Noble answered, she recalls, the student mentioned that her father does similar work, but as an economist. “Well, there’s like one economist in the world, maybe two, who fits that description,” Noble said. “So I looked at her ID badge and said, ‘Wait—is your dad Greg Duncan?’”

It was, and he happened to be in New York at the time. So the two professors had lunch.

“I’d always wanted to meet her,” Duncan said of Noble. He knew that a $4,000 increase in annual income prenatally to age 2 can mean a 19 percent increase in the child’s earnings as an adult. He told her of an idea of his: What if they could do an experiment that alleviates poverty and test causally the effects on child development? “She knew what the problem was with non-experiential data,” Duncan said. “A lot of neuroscientists in this area take the work and say ‘poverty destroys brains,’ but she understood the value of random assignment.” Noble told Duncan that if he ever developed this idea into an experiment, count her in.

Duncan soon spoke to some social scientists he had worked with before and assembled a team with the right combination of skills necessary to pull off a study to measure the effects of income on the developing brain during the first three years of life. They would need to find subjects, evaluate parent stress and parent involvement, and—Noble’s specialty—measure brain activity.

Their study will recruit mothers who are in hospitals to give birth, with incomes no greater than the federal poverty threshold, and randomly assign them to one of two groups: Members of the treatment group will receive $333 per month as an automatic deposit on a debit card. Mothers in the control group will receive $20 per month. The researchers plan to recruit 250 new moms at each of four sites, chosen to represent a diversity of state benefits offered and of racial or ethnic composition, among other things. After they secure agreements to participate, researchers will interview the moms for 20 minutes. “You’d be surprised at how hard it is to give away money,” said Magnuson, who is a former student of Duncan’s. Special legislation had to be passed in Nebraska and Minnesota, two of the study sites, so the income would not threaten participants’ eligibility for public benefits and thereby negate the “treatment.”

Poor neighborhoods can have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of DNA sequences that protect infant chromosomes.

At 12 months, researchers will conduct a longer interview by telephone. When the children reach age 2, the researchers will conduct home visits and collect hair and saliva samples to test them for cortisol levels, an indicator of stress that has been shown to damage the developing brain. Researchers will also videotape the mothers’ interactions with their children during a standardized play task; the videos will be coded for different aspects of parent sensitivity such as perceiving gestures from their children and picking up and responding to them. “We expect to see more sensitive reciprocal interaction in the parents in the treatment group,” Duncan said. At age 3, the families will be brought into the lab to measure cognition and brain development in detail, using EEGs.

Noble would have liked to begin the study prenatally, but that would have risked missing women who weren’t receiving prenatal care. “Almost everyone in the U.S. gives birth in a hospital, but the degree to which mothers receive prenatal care varies quite a bit,” she said. Walking up to women with big bellies on the street wouldn’t have been practical. “If there was a way to get everyone prenatally, for sure we would have loved to try that,” Noble said.

Another limitation of the study will be the use of EEG instead of MRI data—or, better yet, examining the brains directly, which you can do with monkeys but not humans. Older kids can be relied upon to sit still in the noisy, dark MRI tubes, but 3 year olds not so much. An EEG scan involves a series of electrodes fitted into a cap that is placed on the child’s head. “Most kids don’t mind it,” Noble said. “They can sit on their caretaker’s lap. It gives a pretty good window into the electric brain function.”

Children who grow up in more well-off families have vastly different experiences than  those in poverty today. Living in a poor neighborhood has been shown to have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of telomeres, DNA sequences that protect chromosomes, in their children at 12 months. The poor tend to live in more polluted areas, increasing exposure to toxins, and in more crowded and less stable housing environments, which can cause stress. They may live in violent neighborhoods; exposure to violence has been shown to affect the length of children’s telomeres, effectively aging them prematurely, according to research published in 2012 in Molecular Psychiatry. Poor moms have higher rates of psychological distress and depression, which can affect how they interact with their children. They tend to be in lower-quality childcare if they are in childcare, and to have less stable family relationships.

“None of this is to say poor children don’t often live in incredibly loving and warm families who do their best to support their children,” Magnuson emphasized. “But it’s hard to be the parent of a young child in our country—there are very few supports for it—and incredibly hard to do it with very limited financial resources.”

The debit cards will show how participants are spending the money, but not what they spend it on; researchers will need to rely on surveys for that information. They are trusting that families are “able to optimize and understand their own needs,” Magnuson said. Some moms might put their kids in better quality childcare; others might spend the money on ESL classes. Some may decide to move into an apartment in a safer neighborhood; others may calculate they can afford to delay returning to work and thereby spend more time with their infant. The money is expected to just generally reduce mothers’ stress. “If they’re less depressed maybe they’ll have more bandwidth to talk more to their children, or take them to the library,” Magnuson suggested. “Anything that’s going to reduce the child’s experience of stress could very likely improve their brain development.” The surveys, physiological samples and videotaped interactions should provide such data.

“Greg and I have been studying child poverty for a lot of years, particularly Greg,” Magnuson said. “We come from the perspective of wanting to know if something is causal or not, because you want to know how much money really does matter. We’re not here to find something that doesn’t exist. Then I’ll think of other ways to help children.”

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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Reaffirming Affirmative Action

Co-published by International Business Times
Of all the national trendsetting ballot measures decided by California voters in the last generation, perhaps none was more divisive than Proposition 209. It banned racial considerations — otherwise known as affirmative action.

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Erin Aubry Kaplan




Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Reinstating affirmative action is not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. A 2014 Field Poll found strong support for it across the board.

Co-published by International Business Times

Of all the controversial, national trendsetting ballot measures decided by California voters in the last generation, perhaps none was more hotly debated or divisive than Proposition 209. Passed in 1996, the initiative banned racial considerations — otherwise known as affirmative action — as a criteria in state university admissions, as well as in state contracting and hiring. But it was the potential impact on higher education that stoked the most passion among Prop. 209 supporters and detractors alike. The latter decried the ban from the beginning, predicting that the numbers of blacks and other underrepresented ethnic minorities would fall off precipitously and begin to erode California’s vaunted public higher education model of quality and access for all. Despite the accuracy of that prediction, Prop. 209 has for 21 years withstood court challenges and high-profile critiques.

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The opposition to Prop. 209 went underground, but it never went away. Now, possibly because of the open hostility to matters of racial justice that’s already defined the fledgling Trump era, California’s pro-affirmative action movement is going public again. In August, black and Latino lawmakers in Sacramento made it clear they are preparing to make the repeal of Prop. 209 an issue in next year’s gubernatorial race.

Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) sent a letter on behalf of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucuses to the candidates running for governor in 2018, asking them if they would support a repeal of Prop. 209. The Democratic candidates all said yes. The notably diverse candidate group includes former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and State Treasurer John Chiang. Holden, who chairs the Black Caucus, says the key to eventual repeal is a campaign that thoroughly educates, or re-educates the public about how affirmative action benefits everyone by increasing fairness and access to institutions that are, after all, supported by all California taxpayers.

From 1994 to 2010, black acceptance rates dropped from 51% to 15% at UC Berkeley, and from 58% to 14% at UCLA.

“We need to get conversations going around the need for looking at how students of color, especially blacks and Latinos, are not making the cut for UC and Cal State,” says Holden. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding and confusion out there, and ways to drive wedges. We need to be more proactive about the issue.”

Reinstating affirmative action is not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. A 2014 Field Poll found that a state far more diverse than it was in 1996 strongly supports affirmative action across the board—57 percent of whites, 81 percent of Latinos, 83 percent of blacks. The numbers suggest that if Prop. 209 were voted on today it would likely lose (but only if it was worded accurately—the original Prop. 209, which was called a “civil rights initiative,” asked voters if they opposed “discrimination” and never mentioned the phrase affirmative action). Twenty-one years later, there is good reason to be concerned: Since the passage of Prop. 209, the University of California student body has become much less diverse and increasingly less representative of California demographics. The fact that the UC system, notably on its Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, has become more elite and more competitive in the last generation has only worsened the education crisis.

A 2013 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity showed that black students have particularly suffered. From 1994 to 2010, the percentage of African-American applicants admitted to the university system dropped to 58 percent, from about 75 percent, according to the report, based on data provided by the colleges and universities. By comparison, 83 percent of white students who applied in 2010 were admitted, along with 85 percent of Asians and 76 percent of Latinos.

The drop in black acceptance is more stark at the two most elite campuses. From 1994 to 2010, black acceptance rates dropped from 51 percent to 15 percent at the University of California at Berkeley, and from 58 percent to 14 percent at UCLA, the study showed. In 2006, black acceptance reached its nadir at UCLA, where the black freshman class numbered a paltry 96 students, the lowest since 1973.

Latinos have made some gains; in 2014, the percentage of Latino admits to UC was higher than whites for the first time. But overall the numbers and the admissions rate did not keep pace with the growing Latino population. It was partly because of this chronic lagging behind that led state Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) that year to author a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the Prop. 209 ban of racial considerations in university admissions. Known as Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, it passed the Senate and was widely expected to pass the Assembly; despite Prop. 209’s longevity, affirmative action has always been supported by Democrats.

But then the bill hit an unexpected and unpleasant snag. Groups of Asian-Americans, notably Chinese American parents, raised concerns that that their considerable representation in UC schools, especially on the most sought-after campuses, would be threatened by affirmative action’s goal of ethnic balance. Three Asian-American senators who had initially supported Hernandez’s bill reversed course, and other Asian lawmakers in the Assembly vowed to oppose it. The bill was ultimately shelved. The incident sparked intra-party, intra-ethnic political tensions and raised questions about the presumed solidarity of people of color around supporting affirmative action.

Still, the ensuing political fallout in Sacramento did not officially change Asian support of affirmative action. Holden is hoping that part of the new public education campaign for next year will involve John Chiang, one of many Asian-Americans who actively opposed Prop. 209 in 1996 (though he was somewhat vague on the issue in 2014 during the dust-up over SCA 5.) Asians as a group have historically supported affirmative action goals and still do; the challenge going forward is channeling that support into reviving a public policy that most equitably serves the state’s increasingly multi-ethnic public.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at UC Riverside’s School of Public Policy, said in 2014 that Democrats would do well need to keep closer track of attitudes and concerns as demographics in the state shift further away from majority white, a shift that includes a fast-growing, and more diverse, Asian population.

Holden says the time is ripe: “We want to make sure that the doors are open, [especially] because there’s such a critical need for students trained in science, technology, engineering and math to work in places like Silicon Valley. Black and brown students need to be educated at the highest levels.” There’s also the bigger picture of political culture — a picture California could positively influence.“With every presidential tweet there’s a new effort at racial separation in this country,” Holden says. “This is an important time for California on a lot of fronts—environmentally, health-care-wise, educational access– to create a more just society and give opportunities to all.”

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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Making College Free Again

Co-published by International Business Times
Since 2004, California’s public university students have collectively racked up student debt in excess of $12 billion. There was a time when tuition-free college was the norm in California.

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Bill Raden




Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

For an increasing number of education and political leaders, bringing debt-free higher education back to California is long overdue.

Co-published by International Business Times

When Bernie Sanders, and then Hillary Clinton, made debt-free higher education a byword of the 2016 presidential race, University of California graduates like retired Los Angeles anesthesiologist Steve Auer unexpectedly found themselves the poster children for a time when free college tuition was the norm in California, rather than the radical proposition it seems today.

“Education was nearly free,” the 75-year-old Auer recalls in a phone interview with Capital & Main. “Tuition, of course, was nominal, was just almost nothing. That was the reality of that magical period that I was fortunate enough to grow up under and get my education.”

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In the 1960s, the state picked up the tuition for residents attending California’s public universities and colleges. Auer was merely charged, according to the 1963-64 UC Berkeley catalogue, $75 per semester for “services other than teaching facilities.” But even that “incidental fee” (roughly $600 in 2017 dollars) didn’t derail his education when the then-21-year-old suddenly left home after a falling out with his “Eastern European control freak” immigrant father.

“I rented a room in a house that four other guys were already renting,” he remembers. “I had a couple of part-time jobs. I basically scraped by. But it was adequate to get through college with those. No borrowed money at all.”

Today a year at a UC, including living expenses, costs $34,000. At a state university

the price tag is $25,060.

Graduating with a degree in chemistry, Auer went on to get a tuition-free medical degree from UC San Francisco and, on receiving his medical license, immediately entered the economy by buying a home, raising a family and enjoying a level of prosperity that was then still synonymous with the California Dream.

But Golden State tuitions have skyrocketed since former Republican Governor George Deukmejian officially pulled the plug on free tuition in 1984. The incidental fees of Auer’s generation have morphed into today’s $34,000 sticker price (including living expenses) for a year at a UC. At a California State University (CSU), the price tag is $25,060. To help pay for it, California families will resort to a patchwork of Cal Grants, federal Pell Grants, university grants and Middle Class Scholarships. Borrowing will fill in the gaps.

For an increasing number of education and political leaders, bringing debt-free higher education back to California is long overdue. In 2015 alone, over half of UC and CSU seniors graduated with a staggering $1.3 billion debt load. Since 2004, California’s public university students have collectively racked up student debt in excess of $12 billion. That liability has been a catastrophe, according to UC San Francisco medical professor Stanton Glantz, president of the Council of University of California Faculty Associations.

“Even if you take a fairly conservative approach, it’s had huge negative effects on the California economy,” he explains in a phone interview, “because people who graduate with this ridiculous amount of debt have to delay starting families, starting businesses, and it just becomes a weight on the whole economy. … The same people, if you look at the state as a whole, are going to end up paying for higher ed. It’s just, [with free tuition] you give it to everybody, and then the society recoups the costs over the long run by creating more wealth, [rather than] what we’re doing now, which is where you take the people who are actually getting educated and saddle them with [the cost].”

For the first time in 30 years, however, the higher education tide may finally be turning in Californians’ favor. In March, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) unveiled an ambitious proposal for a $1.6 billion-per-year “Degrees Not Debt” scholarship program, aimed at eliminating the need for nearly 400,000 UC and CSU students to take out loans to finance their living expenses. The plan also included a proposal by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) to make the first year of California Community Colleges (CCC) tuition-free for all full-time students.

Ultimately, McCarty’s measure failed to make it into the July budget. A separate bill by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) that would have funded free tuition for community colleges, CSU and UC for California residents died in committee. Santiago’s free-first-year community college bill, Assembly Bill 19, eventually made it to the the governor’s desk, though whether Jerry Brown will sign it is still unclear. For their part, McCarty and Eggman have vowed to press on. “We were able to get tuition-free higher education on California’s agenda, and push the threshold of what we, as policymakers, think is possible,” Eggman said by email. “But there is more work to be done to convince policy makers that this is a critical investment in our future that we must make — and to foster the political will to get it done.”

The argument that a university degree benefits both the graduate and society has been made repeatedly over the years. For the college graduate, it means significantly increased lifetime earnings; for the state, increased tax revenue and reduced costs for social welfare programs and incarceration. A 2012 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues estimated that ongoing returns to the state from UC and CSU graduates averaged $12 billion annually, “well above the general fund expenditures for the UC, CSU and CCC systems combined.”

College tuitions are “a gigantic problem that is eminently solvable

if the political will is there to do it.”

Since 2005, however, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has been sounding the alarm that the state isn’t producing enough bachelor’s degrees to drive its own economy. The PPIC routinely points out that California’s degree gap threatens economic growth and is a significant factor in the income inequality that has already arrested economic mobility in the U.S.

Far more dire is the Frankenstein threat posed by what is being called “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Last year, a World Economic Forum report estimated that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk from automation and artificial intelligence. A robotized workforce, economists predict, will hollow out an already battered middle class, and its expected collateral damage has ironically led even Silicon Valley cyber-billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to warn that “some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary.” The evidence suggests that those without any postsecondary education will be among the hardest hit.

How California went from tuition-free to tuitions that can now cost middle-income families thousands of dollars over that of Harvard College or Yale can be chalked up to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s failed experiment in privatization.

“He came in as a straight, dyed-in-the-blue, or red I guess, free market, Milton Friedman conservative,” quips Glantz, who chaired the budget committee for the UC system at that time. “His view was that going to college was a good [personal] investment. If you went to college, you made more money. And if [people] aren’t willing to spend the money or borrow the money, then that means they don’t want to get educated that much, so why are we distorting things by having the taxpayer subsidize it?”

Although Sacramento’s attempts to fix the cost of higher education are over for this legislative session, Glantz thinks the momentum will carry over into next year’s gubernatorial race. To that end, he has made sure that all of the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates have a copy of The $48 Fix, the debt-free college blueprint authored by the Reclaim CA Higher Education coalition, his working group of state university faculty and labor leaders. With a funding mechanism hinted at in its title, the plan lays out a path not only for debt-free college, but for restoring California’s three-tier system of colleges and universities as both the public good and the robust economic engine envisioned by the state’s landmark 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

“We basically show that you could restore quality and fund all the people who’ve been shoved out of the system and [restore] access if you were to do an income tax surcharge [of] $4 a month for median households [earning $64,500 annually],” he explains. “This is a gigantic problem that is eminently solvable if the political will is there to do it.”

“I think,” adds Glantz, “if you went to the typical family and said, ‘Would you be willing to pay a little bit more in taxes so that you wouldn’t have to worry about this for your kids and your grandchildren and your friends, and the kids you don’t have yet, and all that?’ — most people would say, ‘Yes.’”

[Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that AB 19 had failed to make it into the budget.]

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College Accrediting Commission Gets Reform Overhaul

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges had fought to close City College of San Francisco, only to find its own policies come under harsh public scrutiny.

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Seth Sandronsky




Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges office in Novato. (Photo: Capital & Main Staff)

The California Federation of Teachers has settled its long-standing lawsuit against the commission that accredits community and junior colleges, ensuring that “fair accreditation practices will be the norm going forward,” a union official told Capital & Main. 

“The agreement is a tremendous achievement for all California community colleges,” federation president Josh Pechthalt said.

Richard Winn, the new president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), agreed. “We are very pleased to arrive at a mutually satisfactory settlement,” Winn said. “We look forward to a collaborative relationship with the [union] going forward.”

The commission ignited a firestorm of controversy five years ago when it attempted to strip the City College of San Francisco of its accreditation. The CFT and the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 sued, and the San Francisco city attorney won an injunction keeping the school open with its accreditation. When ACCJC sanctions result in a school losing accreditation, the school may close or, as in the case of Compton Community College, be absorbed by another district. Without accreditation, students are no longer eligible for federal and state financial aid programs, and their degrees become worthless. (Disclosure: CFT and AFT are financial supporters of this website.)

The agency had criticized the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) for having too few administrators but too many faculty, and for staff salaries it considered too high–salaries set through collective bargaining. The agreement, reached in August, formalizes a policy banning the commission from interfering in collective bargaining as it previously had done, said Tim Killikelly, president of the AFT local that represents CCSF faculty.

The agreement also ends the ACCJC’s use of student learning outcomes to evaluate faculty.

Under the agreement the ACCJC must “ensure at least three members of any evaluation team are currently employed as active duty faculty members.” The ACCJC had earlier favored increasing non-faculty members as faculty evaluators.

“This was a real sticking point for us,” Pechthalt said. The ACCJC’s Winn declined to comment on faculty evaluators or any other policies the agreement amends, deletes or formalizes.

The agreement bars conflicts of interest from the community college evaluations. Former ACCJC President Barbara Beno’s husband, Peter Crabtree, had been a commission evaluator of the CCSF.

The California Community Colleges Consultation Council, an 18-member panel reporting to the state’s Community College Chancellor, becomes a new reviewer of ACCJC accreditation policy proposals under the agreement. This provision aims to provide more transparency in the way the ACCJC develops policies, a move away from the nepotism that had allegedly been a past factor in naming evaluators. Another of the agreement’s main issues is how fairly the ACCJC financially evaluates California community colleges. The ACCJC must apply consistency “in the review of all institutions,” the settlement says.

The ACCJC admits in the agreement that it had practiced an inconsistent policy in its past financial evaluation of community colleges. For example, the agency had criticized CCSF for receiving a grant from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while praising other community colleges for getting money from the same federal source, the AFT’s Killikelly said.

The agreement also lengthens the ACCJC’s reaffirmation of accreditation from 18 months to seven years. This policy change will provide community colleges with more time to address “remaining compliance issues” to maintain accreditation requirements that ensure vital government funding.

Finally, the agreement contains a dispute resolution process over the ACCJC’s performance as the sole accrediting agency for California’s community colleges. A jointly funded professional mediator will be available if the commission and the unions are unable to reach a resolution.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who won the 2014 injunction that urged the commission to end its threat to close CCSF, said by email that he applauds the unions “for ensuring that there are fair accreditation practices for all community colleges in California. Like our success in San Francisco, their work has helped pave the way for a quality education for any Californian who wants it.”

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Back to School With Teachers’ Leader Randi Weingarten

When American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten traveled the country during her annual national back-to-school tour this year, she purposely weighted her itinerary with stops at schools whose parents had overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

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Bill Raden




Randi Weingarten. (All Photos by Joanne Kim)

When American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten traveled the country during her annual national back-to-school tour this year, she purposely weighted her itinerary with stops at schools whose parents had overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. Crossing the red/blue line in places like Binghamton, New York and St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana for the sake of what she calls “movement-building” is hardly novel for the leader of 1.7 million union classroom teachers. Weingarten had famously extended an olive branch to Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos in a soon-aborted attempt at finding common ground with the evangelical prophet of for-profit school privatization.

On her swing through California, Weingarten sat down with Capital & Main to talk about how far public schools have come during 25 years of the education wars, as well as the threats posed by a federal government that has never been more hostile to the principals of communitarian democracy that are the common DNA of public education and its unions. (Disclosure: The AFT is a financial supporter of this website. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How dare you take a meat ax and eliminate every single summer school program for children, every single after-school program for children, every single feeding program for children and say that they’re not relevant?”

Capital & Main: The Supreme Court in the coming year will likely hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which is expected to overturn 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision and cripple public sector unions’ ability to charge membership fees. To what extent will that ruling impact AFT’s historic advocacy role for the nation’s teachers and public school children?

Randi Weingarten: Look, I take every challenge as a moment of opportunity. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. The Janus case is about doing what the Guardian said today: defunding and defanging unions so that they cannot do the job that they’re supposed to do, which is to be the people’s advocate. What I’m seeing in the United States is people wanting to fight for a voice and understanding that they can’t do it alone— the kids call it being woke. There’s an appetite to fight, [but] we need to be smart about doing the work. The work is engaging members on issues that are rooted in values and that are relevant to them, and engaging [the] community, and to be solution-driven, and to be focused on how we get to opportunity in America. That means working for the kids that we serve and the members that we represent. Teachers want what the kids need.

How would you rate Betsy DeVos’ performance as Secretary of Education thus far?

Weingarten: I don’t know — do you give somebody an F on morality? We spent the day with her in Van Wert, Ohio. She went into every single meeting saying, “We can find common ground. We can work together to reduce paperwork for special needs kids. We can work on CTE [career and technical education] together.” Do you think she followed up? Not one follow-up on any of the things. That’s reprehensible. Look at her school visits: She’s visiting private schools. She is basically wearing her ideology on her sleeve. That’s fine as an advocate, not when you take an oath of office.

Back-to-school is usually a time of celebration, a time of great possibilities for parents, teachers and kids. This week, in every place I’ve gone to, they are worried to death.”

How dare you take a meat ax and eliminate every single summer school program for children, every single after-school program for children, every single feeding program for children and say that they’re not relevant? How dare you do that! How dare you say that HBCU’s [historically black colleges and universities] are pioneers of choice when the reason that they were founded was because people were discriminated against and didn’t have a choice? How dare you put somebody in as the head of your civil rights division who thinks that women on campuses may get raped because people were drunk, and you don’t do anything about that? How dare you side with the lenders instead of students who borrow money to go to college? You side with those who have histories of usury and predatory practices. There’s never been someone like this in that role.



What would you say is the biggest threat, then, facing public schools today?

Weingarten: The franchise to vote and the franchise of public education are at risk right now. Every single state constitution has something embedded in it about how there’s a responsibility for the education of its students. Whether it’s to prepare them for citizenship, whether it’s to create opportunities for them and their families, whether it’s to create knowledge and skills. It’s not a fight over curriculum anymore, as important as that is. It’s not a  fight over testing anymore, as important as that is. It is the fight over whether we will provide kids in America with a public education that is diverse, that is integrated and non-discriminatory, that helps them become whoever they want to be and provides them the resources to achieve their potential.

Many people with memories of public schools from a generation or more ago might be really surprised by what they find when they walk into a classroom today. What are some of those changes that you are most proud of?

Weingarten: Public schools are safer and they are attempting to do all the things that kids are expected to know and be able to do in a way that they never did before. The values of ensuring that every single child is safe and secure, that every single child is valued and respected … are embedded in basically every single public school in America. That’s a big difference from before. Test scores are up, graduation rates are up. People try to do everything they can in terms of using data to improve instruction, and fighting for the things that they know kids need, like services for children — mental health services, after-school services, curriculum that is broad and deep and that focuses on the whole child, project-based learning. I think you see this kind of sense of building relationships and a resiliency as well as a commitment to equity. … [And] those places where you’ve had union density, where you have collective bargaining, where teachers actually are empowered to use their voice — those are places where you see more funding, you see better graduation rates, you see more successful outcomes, you see more services for kids.


You’ve mentioned the need to call out the privatizers on pretending that they cared more about kids than about dismantling public education — that we are in a which-side-are-you-on moment. How do mainstream liberal Democrats that support charter schools differ from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’ brand of school choice?

Weingarten: Even though I would like Democrats to be much more bold on these issues, because I think that this is foundational to democracy, and it requires investment, I do think that there is a big difference between even a Barrack Obama and an [former Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan, and a Betsy DeVos [and a Donald Trump]. Which is the [latter] do not believe in public service. If you look at Detroit, Michigan, if you look at Florida — places that DeVos has worked in — they have actively destabilized and defunded public education. If you really believe in choice, you wouldn’t be cutting the budget or destabilizing or defunding public education. You would be helping to create public school as a viable choice. And I think that the California Charter Schools Association is very similar to DeVos in that manner. They see it as a zero sum game, and that’s not real choice.

The franchise to vote and the franchise of public education are at risk right now.”

During the presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made free college part of the national conversation. Do you think it’s time that the country guaranteed access to free, quality higher education for all of its high school graduates?

Weingarten: Well, I think just like when a high school diploma became essential, we made [high school] free for all students by making it part of public education. So the answer is yes, I think that kids that want to go to college should have that same opportunity to go without unsustainable debt. … But I also think we have to deal with issues like sustainability. We have to deal with issues like making sure that community colleges and state universities don’t have the kind of austerity we have right now, where there are limitations in, you know, the number of classes that kids can take, or where you don’t have the kind of robustness and maintenance of effort in the faculty or the course offerings. And I also think we have to do something to make sure that career tech ed and apprenticeships as a pathway are [included] too.

You’ve been traveling around California and the rest of the country as part of your annual back-to-school tour. What would you say has been your most surprising takeaway this year?

Weingarten: There’s a lot of anxiety and stress right now. Back-to-school is usually a time of celebration, a time of great possibilities for parents and teachers and kids. This week, in every place I’ve gone to, they are worried to death — about what Donald Trump is going to do about the DACAmented kids; [there are] kids who are worried about bullying and intimidation as a result of what happened in Charlottesville; [there is] the hurting and the despair that you see in Texas, where people lost their schools and their homes; the kind of budget cuts to Medicaid, to after-school programs, to summer school programs that the federal government was pushing and, frankly, that we won by one vote; we avoided these huge, draconian Medicaid cuts by one vote in the Senate.

Having said that, [teachers] all over the country find a way to create a protective coat and a bubble of safety and security within those schools to reach kids, to make sure kids have a great education. I get to spend time with people who are really receiving the promise of public education for all students, despite all the obstacles that are thrown at that. So that’s why we’re publics, we’re proud, and that’s why I love, love, love our members — their dedication, their resilience, their capacity to love and to engage children because they want to make a difference in their lives.

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Proposed State-Run STEM School Raises Questions, Suspicions

There are well over a hundred specialized STEM schools and programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District. So why are a handful of California politicians pushing to create a state-run STEM school in L.A.?

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Bill Raden




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A hastily revised bill introduced in Sacramento last month is attempting to address the state’s STEM crisis by adding a single new privatized state STEM school to California’s already contentious K-12 landscape. The plan to create an 800-student “State School for Instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” that would serve grades six through 12, and be located somewhere within Los Angeles County, has met heated resistance from public school advocates.

Part of their concern lies in just how much the proposed new breed of state STEM schools resembles charter schools, which are privately managed but taxpayer-funded. School districts have long contended that charters siphon off their higher achieving students while leaving the districts with less money to teach a larger percentage of far-needier kids.

Authored by Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-San Fernando), Assembly Bill 1217 stipulates that the new STEM school would operate similarly. It would be managed by a private non-profit corporation and get its funding from the same combination of private philanthropy and the state ADA (average daily attendance) money that would follow its 800 students, probably from Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). (Boganegra has said he’d like to see the school located in downtown L.A.) For a district that is already the largest charter school authorizer in the nation and is still gun-shy after recently fending off a takeover attempt by billionaire school choice philanthropist Eli Broad, any scheme that promises further stratification is an existential threat.

The bill started life last spring as legislation that would have expanded teaching residency programs. But a July 11 press release from Bocanegra, who is also the leader of the Assembly’s so-called Moderate Democrat caucus, announced its startling change in direction. It touted the school as a pathway for “low-income and underrepresented communities in Los Angeles County [to pursue] STEM higher education and careers,” and as an answer to the lack of diversity in California’s expanding tech sector workforce. The press release also noted that “less than six percent of Silicon Valley tech engineers are African-American or Latino.”

Critics, however, say it is how the bill proposes to achieve that end — along with its murky factual grasp of the problems facing STEM education — that they find deeply troubling.

“I think that there’s a lot of agreement that it’s important for K-12 education to play some role in that,” University of California Los Angeles education professor John Rogers told Capital & Main.  But it’s not clear why you would want to have a new state governance structure over one small school.”

“There’s some political quid pro quos that are going on here,” third-year LAUSD school board member George McKenna offered in a phone call. “Far be it for me to speculate. I’m a recently elected official, and I don’t consider myself that politically astute. But I can read. And I know the difference between the sunshine and Shinola.”

“The economic devastation to the district is felt in ways they can’t see,” added McKenna. Even if you say [a state STEM school] was something that the local district would want to do, it lends itself to the separatism and the elitism of [creating] schools that only certain types of children will be anxious to apply to.”

John Rogers, education professor: “It’s not clear why you would want to have a new state governance structure over one small school.”

But the bill also moves beyond California’s existing charter law by stipulating that, rather than than being authorized and overseen by a local school board, the legislature would authorize the STEM school and the state schools superintendent would be responsible for its accountability. That, according to Sylvia Rousseau, emeritus professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, raises some red flags.

“The best protection to education as democracy is that we allow democratically elected school boards to govern the education of children under their jurisdiction,” Rousseau said. “When efforts like this have less control by local governing bodies, where it’s funded much more by private interests — or at least it’s sponsored by private interests with the opportunity to contribute heavily to it — it begins to redefine who has access to STEM education.”

“AB 1217 is an end-run around local control,” agreed education law attorney Sue Ann Salmon Evans in an email. “This is an effort to establish charters without the local district’s input (or local community, local employees, local unions, etc.).”

The existing charter law, Salmon Evans pointed out, only allows the SBE to sidestep local review of a charter school petition in the case of a so-called “statewide benefit charter,” which is a sort of charter franchise empowered to open schools anywhere in the state. The catch is that the SBE must first determine that the proposed charter school would be providing instructional services that cannot otherwise be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district, or only in one county. That is obviously not the case with STEM curricula.

“There already are a whole host of STEM schools across the state, and in particular in Los Angeles, the area that it is targeting,” Rogers explained. “[AB 1217] fails to acknowledge that fact. It presents this as a whole new idea.”

In fact, LAUSD alone lists 97 STEM magnet schools on its website in what looks to be a fairly even distribution across the city’s lower-income neighborhoods. An informal survey of the California Department of Education’s charter school database also turned up at least 34 charter schools in Los Angeles County that specified “math” or “science” or “STEM” in their name.

The STEM crisis has less to do with student enrollment than it does a shortage of qualified STEM teachers.

The bill comes at a time when the very existence of a STEM crisis has been hotly debated, with some alleging that the issue has been distorted since the Obama era in pushes by Silicon Valley tech companies to expand H-1B visas — temporary immigration permits for skilled workers — that have depressed wages for U.S. workers with advanced science degrees. Nevertheless, a 2014 study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that more than half of new jobs in the state will be in industries likely to face a shortage of workers with some college education but less than a bachelor’s degree, including STEM-related occupations in health care and social assistance, and scientific and technical services.

In educational terms, however, the crisis has less to do with STEM enrollment than it does a shortage of qualified STEM teachers. A report this year by the Learning Policy Institute noted that between 2012 and 2016 alone, the proportion of California mathematics and science teachers with substandard credentials or permits doubled from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent — even as the number of fully credentialed math and science teachers dropped from 3,200 to only 2,200.

That decline has many implications, insisted Rousseau, and it raises larger questions that would be better addressed at the state level — such as whether California is supporting teachers and adequately compensating them for the value of their work.

“I think we tend to always try to solve the problem before we understand the problem,” said Rousseau. “So I would say that’s a great way for a state board of the office of education to engage in a period of inquiry about why STEM education seems to be a problem in local districts. Offering an alternative never solves the problem. It only addresses some symptoms and rescues a few children without addressing the systemic issue.”

The bill, which is being co-sponsored by State Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada), is slated to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee when the legislature returns from its summer recess August 21.

Photo above by DHendrix73. Homepage photo by Ida Irby.

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Will Nick Melvoin Be Los Angeles Charter Schools’ Game-Changer?

A low-turnout Los Angeles election, which set a new record as the most expensive school board contest in U.S. history, resulted in a 57-43 percent victory margin for an affable defender of “school choice.”

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Bill Raden




New LAUSD school board member Nick Melvoin

It should have been a cakewalk. Instead, Steve Zimmer, the progressive school board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), who was running for his third term and enjoyed the full backing of the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles, suffered a shocking defeat May 16 against 31-year-old political newcomer Nick Melvoin.

Together with fellow first-timer Kelly Gonez and veteran charter supporter Mónica García, who was re-elected outright in the March primary, Melvoin delivered for the California Charter School Association (CCSA) and his slate’s big-spending charter philanthropists what they haven’t had since 2010 — a pro-charter majority school board for the largest charter school district in the nation.

“This was ours to win and we lost. I mean there’s no sugarcoating it,” Zimmer told Capital & Main in a phone call. “We’ve been up against big money before. That’s not enough. That we weren’t able to turn out more of our base is on us completely.”

Well, maybe. In a low-turnout election that set a new record as the most expensive school board contest in U.S. history, CCSA and charter philanthropists raised $9.7 million versus $5.2 million from unions — but outspent Zimmer on Melvoin’s behalf by $6.6 million to $2.7 million. The result was a 57-43 percent victory for a bright, affable and passionate defender of “school choice.”

Steve Zimmer (Photo by Pandora Young)Steve Zimmer (Photo by Pandora Young)

In a phone interview, Melvoin described his political leanings as “left” and said he’s long been a supporter of labor. And like Zimmer, he entered education via Teach for America (TFA) just as the Great Recession teacher layoffs were entering their peak.

It was while a TFA English as a Second Language teacher at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts that he signed on to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reed v. California. The 2010 lawsuit challenged district teacher-layoff policies on civil rights grounds, and Melvoin found its creative disruption so appealing that he also testified at 2014’s Vergara v. California, a more far-reaching Reed retread financed by the antiunion Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that attempted to have long-time teacher protections declared unconstitutional.

If that wasn’t enough to rub organized labor the wrong way, candidate Melvoin added the liabilities of recession-ravaged teacher pension funds to his platform by reviving a tiered-benefit scheme for new hires that has been anathema to unions ever since moderate Democrats like David Crane first began stalking public-sector retirement security from inside the Schwarzenegger administration.

“Fixing that seems to me a huge priority,” said Melvoin, “so we can continue to attract great teachers but also make sure we’re fair to the teachers we have. But I think to do that, we’re going to have to be creative about how we pay new teachers, whether we look at new retirement packages for new teachers, so we can adequately protect those for current teachers. And those are things that have just been dead on arrival for a few years.”

Melvoin’s confidence in his ability to engage both sides of the charter divide — based on a conviction that there should be more uniting progressive labor and neoliberal charter Democrats than dividing the two factions — is reminiscent of the Zimmer of eight years ago, when the 17-year Marshall High School teacher was first elected to the board. Melvoin’s nonstop flow of ideas can be as seductive as it is exhausting to hear — his imagining of community schooling health provider partnerships with campus clinics, and counseling for the district’s most traumatized kids and families (much like an initiative recently co-launched by UTLA); or the “mitigating” of parent charter demand by investing in traditional neighborhood public schools, and then showcasing them as community centers.

“This is what excites me at the moment,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of area of agreement when it comes to lowering class sizes, [putting] more money in education — potentially through a parcel tax or bond measure — and [creating] great working conditions for teachers, finding ways to stem the teacher shortage. Now, there might be differences in policy solutions for that, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity [for cooperation].”

All are tantalizing thoughts. But when questions turn to the possibility of regulating a system that has left neighborhoods blighted by charter oversaturation, or by charters that simply refuse to play by the transparency, oversight and accountability rules demanded of public schools, and has trapped public school kids in emotionally toxic Proposition 39 co-locations, Melvoin falls back on the familiar charter tautology of some-kids/not-all-kids laissez faire economics that marks the LAUSD board-member-elect as the Anti-Zimmer.

“You know, when you look back at the charter movement,” he reflected, “those rules weren’t meeting kids’ needs. And so the 130,000 kids’ [parents] who have chosen charters clearly believe that we need a new set of rules, and so there’s definitely a difference between regulation and rules. But this idea that we should get all charters to play by the same rules as the district school completely defeats the purpose of the whole movement.”

Like many charter watchers, John Rogers, a University of California, Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education professor, doesn’t foresee the floodgates opening anytime soon, at least if the board’s veteran pro-charter members are any indication: “It is not yet clear to me what policies Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez will want to advance. Monica has long-standing relationships with community organizations that will not be in favor of unbridled charter expansion and I suspect the same is true for Ref.”

Nevertheless, a school board would merely need to relax its scrutiny and allow new charter petitions to roll in and allow the market incentives written into California’s charter authorization process to take their course. Which is more or less what Nick Melvoin promised voters during his campaign.

And there’s also a theoretical point at which the electoral scales will permanently tip in favor of what becomes, increasingly, an unassailable inflationary spiral: More charter students translate into a political constituency of more charter parents who support more resources for more charter schools, which translates into bigger school board election war chests. It’s why, when Eli Broad’s short-lived secret charter school expansion plan for LAUSD was leaked to the press in 2015, it was described as a hostile takeover attempt. That ambition continues to be echoed in the statewide push announced last year by CCSA that would almost double California’s charter enrollment to roughly 18 percent by 2022.

“It’s just going to happen over and over again in public education,” warned Zimmer. “It’s going to happen in smaller districts, it’s going to happen on county boards of education. They now have the template; they now have the money. If they could do this in Los Angeles, with a fairly well-liked, established incumbent, think of what they’re going to do in other places. They’ve got their playbook.”

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