Category Archives: Democracy

What can we learn from school board meetings?

In forming opinions on policy, it’s good to balance research and lived experience.

Research is an invaluable tool in helping us test our beliefs, but the most rigorous research is limited to what can be measured, and not everything can be measured.

When it comes to public school policy, attending school board meetings has been a major part of my lived experience.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended two different types of school board meetings: elected school board meetings and non-profit charter school board meetings.

 

The elected school board meetings I’ve attended  range from dysfunctional (school board members screaming at each other) to misguided (school board members discussing random topics that have little to do with governing public schools) to sometimes useful (reasoned debate on systems level policy).

Unfortunately, I’ve attended many more dysfunctional and misguided elected school board meetings than I’ve attended useful elected school board meetings.

The non-profit charter school board meetings tend to be much more productive. More often than not, the board members are focused and knowledgeable. This is especially true of larger non-profit charter networks, where the board has been around for over a decade and governed through organization scaling.

Yes, I’ve attended a few dysfunctional charter school board meetings, but they are not the norm.

This lived experience in attending board meetings has shaped my policy views. Based on a decade of attending board meetings, I believe that non-profit boards will be better at governing schools than elected boards will be.

I do believe we need democratic oversight over our public schools. Elections allow us to debate values, and these values should shape how we oversee our public schools.This oversight can come in a variety of forms, from elected boards to mayoral control. The New Orleans elected school board, for example, oversees a nearly 100% non-profit charter schools system.

But while we need elections to debate values, we don’t need elections to govern individual or networks of schools.

My lived experience leads me to believe that this duty is best held by non-profit boards.

High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

This is likely a crude distinction, but I think there’s a real difference between high expectations and low expectations parent organizing.

Low expectations parent organizing occurs when you simply meet parents where they are at, without having much urgency about tackling systems level issues.

For example, organizes might work for parents for a few years on issues like lunch quality, bus routes, and extracurricular activities.

If organizers and parents work hard and a few year later the lunches are a little better, what’s the point if the vast majority of the kids can’t read or do math on grade level, or if the school culture fails to build students with strong values?

This feels like low expectations: working too long on these issues is implicitly saying that parents are not smart enough to tackle the most pressing issues facing their children.

High expectations parent organizing starts with the premise that families can grasp systems level issues, and that the quicker they are engaged on important issues like teacher and school quality, the better.

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss really hard educational issues with families living in deep poverty. And while it’s surely true that they start from a deficit of policy knowledge, they tend to come up to speed quickly and, most importantly, can merry policy arguments with the brutal facts that they see day in and day out when the are forced to send their children to struggling schools.

Based on my experience (and I still have a lot to learn in this area), I’d say the following are the key components of great high expectations parent organizing:

  1. Organizers begin with the mindset that families can grasp and advocate for systems level policy solutions.
  2. Organizers provide unbiased (as much as feasible) educational classes and experiences to families so that families can grapple with systems level policy issues.
  3. Organizers both possess and cultivate a sense of urgency – so that educational experiences start leading to powerful systems level actions.
  4. Family leaders fairly quickly take the reigns in terms of determining the future policy and advocacy agenda.
  5. Family leaders increase their operational chops so that the actions and campaigns they are less reliant on external organizers.

Ultimately, this is a two step high expectations game: first, you need to believe that families can understand systems level issues, and second, you need to believe that they can lead the charge.

I’m still trying to get smarter in this area, so I hope that the organizers who read this blog  will correct errors in the comment section.

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

Hastings Fund donates $50,000 to ACLU

The Hastings Fund was created with the mission of ensuring that every child in this country can attend an amazing school.

While we remain focused on this mission, we know that education is not the only issue affecting families in this country.

The recent executive orders signed by President Trump threaten to break American families apart, as well as deprive child refugees from seeking opportunity in our nation.

Future executive orders may do immense harm to the Dreamers who are already striving in our schools.

To help fight against these attacks on our country’s values, we’re donating $50,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This is the Hasting Fund’s first non-educational donation.

Post election reflections

On this blog, I’m going to keep my post-election reflections focused on education, save for one thought: continued progress in the realization of the American dream is extremely important for our nation and the world as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to play a bit part in this vitally important endeavor. I hope you do too.

On to education.

#1: MA and GA Drive Home that Traditional Public School Support is Boosted by Populism 

In Massachusetts, a populist blue state, the charter school cap was not lifted because unions effectively portrayed this expansion as something that would harm traditional public schools.

In Georgia, a populist red state, a state takeover entity was rejected because opponents effectively portrayed the intervention as something that would hurt local public schools.

In populist politics, communications messages that focus on preserving local, traditional public schools appear to be very effective.

Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me that these results demonstrate a significant antipathy toward charter schools; rather, they seem to indicate a deep protectionist instinct for traditional public schools.

For charters to be successful, we may need to communicate in a fashion that reduces fears that existing traditional schools will be harmed.

#2: In Cities Where Charters are Normalized, Elections are Producing Pro-Reform Results

In New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oakland – all cities with 25%+ high-performing charter sectors – reforms either held or expanded majorities.

Generally, reformers prefer top-down quick wins like ballot initiatives; however, we have emerging evidence that, in cities with higher charter market share, elected school boards can tip into modestly sustainable pro-reform majorities.

This is more evidence that market share drives everything.

#3 What Will Ideological but Not Constituent Support Deliver? 

The federal government is now fully controlled by Republicans, a party that is highly ideologically aligned with choice and charters.

However, many Republicans represent states without large charter sectors. As such, there is not uniform constituent demand for more charters.

An open question to me is how much Republicans will use this moment to expand thoughtful, sustainable choice reforms.

#4 The Status of Within District Reform will Rise 

Given the populist rise of traditional school protection, reforms that disrupt within districts – such as technology – will likely see in increase in philanthropic support.

In Sum

There is much to be learned by listening to how people express themselves through voting.

It’s a noisy signal, but in a world of communication bubbles, it’s a signal nonetheless.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Draft Text for a State Constitutional Amendment to End the Education Wars

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If the United States could adopt the educational regime of any country in the world, I would not choose Finland or Singapore or South Korea.

I would choose the Netherlands.

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In 1917, the Dutch had a national education battle about what types of schools deserve public funding.

This battle, as well as other policy battles, was settled with a constitutional amendment which was passed during what is known as the “Pacification of 1917.”

The constitutional amendment established a fundamental right to open a school and receive pubic funding.

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!

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Since the Pacification of 1917, the Dutch government has built a set of regulations to manage the implementation of the constitutional amendment.

Depending on where you are on the freedom axis, you might find these regulations reasonable or tyrannic.

I find some of them to be reasonable (national academic objectives) and some not (negotiating teacher salaries at the national level).

The Dutch have blazed one trail on how to regulate the freedom to open publicly funded schools; surely, other experiments would teach us much.

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So here is proposed text for a state constitutional amendment in the United States of America:

“The right to found a school or enroll in a school shall not be abridged by government or any entity receiving government funding. All schools that meet basic education standards shall receive public funding based on a per-pupil allotment that is weighted based on student need and uniform across schools.”

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I don’t think every state in the United States of America should pass this amendment.

But I think it would be great if a few states did.

I imagine each state would blaze its own path in determining how to manage a system where citizens had a constitutional right to open schools and where families had a constitutional right to choose amongst these schools.

I also think this approach – passing a constitutional amendment – has much more moral and legal force than pushing for ad hoc funding programs, such as education savings accounts or limited vouchers.

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.

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Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, the Dutch rank number 10 in the world in student achievement based on the 2012 PISA results (they’re actually #7 if you throw out Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, which last time I checked aren’t countries).

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