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Jeanne Kaplan: The Battle Against Deformers in Denver is Always Uphill

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Jeanne Kaplan is a veteran civil rights activist who was elected to serve two terms on the Denver school board. She has been active in multiple campaigns to stop privatization and over-testing and energize a genuine effort to improve the public schools. She wrote this piece for this blog.

  THE SISYPHEAN TASK IN DENVER

The dictionary defines Sisyphean task as something you keep doing but never gets completed, an endless task.  In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the god Zeus and is tasked with endlessly pushing a rock up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top.  I will leave the deeper philosophical meanings to others.  Simply interpreted, public education advocates residing in the Queen City of the Rockies, “transformers” if you will, will find similarities to this story as we reflect on our battle to defeat “education reform.”  In Denver’s case the Sisyphean task master has not been a vengeful god, but rather a school board member or a school board itself which through their betrayals continues to keep “transformers” tasked with pushing the education transformational rock up the mountain.

Call it the Sisyphean Challenge, Groundhog Day, a Broken Record, Déjà vu.  However you describe it, these “transformers” are experiencing another setback in their attempts to stop or at least slow down the business-based “education reform” model. In 2009 Denver voters thought they had put an end to the then still budding “education reform” movement.  “Transformers” won four of seven seats on the school board but quickly lost that advantage when, within hours of the election, one supposed “transformer” flipped sides.  For the next ten years education reformers had free reign in Denver. Four to three boards became a six to one board, became a seven to zero board.  All for “education reform.”  Forward ten years to today.  “Transformers” once again gained control of the Denver School Board in theory.  This time the transformer majority was believed to be 5-2.  But local education reformers – with a lot of help from national reform partners – once again figured out how to get their privatization agenda through this hypothetically anti-privatization 5-2 Board.  By consistently voting to renew and re-establish privatization policies and projects, today’s Board has deprived Denver voters once again of reaching the mountain top, and usually by a 6-1 vote.  And from today’s perspective the rock has once again rolled down the mountain.

The below listed organizations, initiatives and foundations have all had their hand in preventing educational transformation in Denver. The list is thorough but not comprehensive:

1 – A+ Colorado 30 – Empower Schools
2 – Adolph Coors Foundation 31 – Gates Family Foundation
3 – Anschutz Family Foundation 32 – Janus Fund
4 – Bellwether Education Partners 33 – KIPP – Knowledge is Power Program
5 – Bezos Family Foundation 34 – Koch Family Foundations
6 – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 35 – Laura and John Arnold Foundation
7 – Bloomberg Philanthropies 36 – Laurene Powell Jobs – Emerson Collective
8 – Boardhawk 37 – Leadership for Educational Equity
9 – CareerWise 38 – Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
10 – Chalkbeat 39 – Lyra Learning – Innovation Zones
11 – Chan Zuckerberg Initiative 40 – Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
12 – Schusterman Family Foundation 41 – Moonshot
13 – Chiefs for Change 42 – PIE Network (Policy Innovators in Ed)
14 – City Fund 43 – Piton/Gary Community Investments
15 – City Year 44 – Relay Graduate School of Education
16 – Colorado Health Foundation 45 – Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation
17 – Colorado Succeeds 46 – RootEd
18 – Community Engagement & Partners 47 – Rose Foundation
19 – Daniels Fund 48 – School Board Partners
20 – Democrats for Education Reform 49 – Stand for Children
21 – Denver Families of Public Schools 50 – Students First
22 – Denver Foundation 51 – Teach for America
23 – Denver Scholarship Foundation 52 – The Broad Academy/The Broad Center
24 – Donnell-Kay Foundation 53 – Third Way
25 – EdLeadLeadership 54 – TNTP
26 – Education Pioneers 55 – Transform Education Now (TEN Can)
27 – Education Reform Now 56 – Wallace Foundation
28 – Education Trust 57 – Walton Family Foundation
29 – Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Below are some of the reform ventures coaxed through by these groups.  Many have been used to maintain the failing status quo.  Some have been used to make money for friends and colleagues.  Some have been outright failures.   But by its failure to address them or by its continued tolerance of them, the DPS Board has sanctioned the continuation of privatization in our city:

·      At a time when education reform was truly hanging on by a thread in Denver, the Board assured its continued existence for the foreseeable future by voting to renew the use of the racially biased state accountability system, going even further into reformland by promising to develop a new accountability “dashboard” (a key “reformer” tenet).  While testing is state mandated, the District did not even explore the possibility of waiving its obligation to rely on this system. This one decision has also allowed the proliferation of many of the above listed groups and has given new life to the overall privatization movement.  A lot of new players are making a lot of new money from the public education system in Denver. After all, what is the business model really about if it is not about making money?  This one vote has allowed the continuation of some of the most divisive and punitive practices such as:

1.     Relying on high stakes testing even though the Board has given lip service to wanting a waiver this year due to COVID; 

2.     Relying on a non-transparent Choice system, which some believe is being used to fill unwanted charters;

3.     Ranking of schools and continued competition resulting in winners and losers among students and schools;

4.     Relying on Student Based Budgeting where the money follows the student;

5.     Marketing of schools, whereby wealthier schools and schools with their own board of directors (charters and Innovation Zone schools) have a distinct advantage;

6.     Giving bonuses to employees of schools based on test scores.  

Other recent reform-oriented Board decisions include:

·      Voting to renew or extend all 13 charter school contracts that were up this year even when some were struggling for enrollment and academic success.  The Board claimed it did not want to disrupt kids and families.  Portfolio model.

·      Promoting school MERGERS as opposed to school CLOSURES for under enrolled neighborhood schools, somehow thinking voters won’t notice that merging schools results in the same failed policy as school closures, that campaign promises have been broken, and that charter schools are being treated differently.  Portfolio model.  

·      Voting to approve new Innovation Zones, the hybrid portfolio model that supposedly gives schools more independence while, unlike charters, is still under the control of the school board.  These Innovation Zones do, however, have their own administrative staff as well as their own boards and have ushered in their own cottage industry. Portfolio Model.

·      Working with City Fund funded School Board Partners for Board training. City Fund is a relative newcomer to the education privatization world and is largely financed by Netflix Reed Hastings and John Arnold of Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Locally, City Fund has dropped $21 million into Denver’s own RootEd to assure “every child in Denver has the opportunity and support to achieve success in school, college and their chosen career.” This needs to be done equitably, of course!  And only within a non-union school!  Grant funding from private sources to promote private interests.

·      Hiring a Broad trained Superintendent search company, Alma Advisory Group.  Alma has also been involved in executive searches for both City Fund and The Broad Academy, two quintessential privatizers.  More than four months have gone by since DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova resigned.  Four metro Denver school districts have had superintendent vacancies this winter.  Two have already found their leaders.  Denver is still holding community meetings which if they follow DPS history, will end up be ing rather meaningless.  Most importantly, will this “reform” inclined group be able to bring a wide-ranging group of candidates forward? The Broad Academy, training leaders in education reform.

·      Continuing to allow and expand non-licensed teachers and administrators from programs such as Teach for American and Relay Graduate School of Education into DPS’ schools and continuing to tell the public they are just as qualified as professional educators.   Anyone can teach!

Why do these examples matter, you might ask?

For starters, review the list of organizations and people pushing privatization.  The sheer number is staggering.  Then check out the similarity of language in their missions, visions, and goals and the uniformity of strategies and messaging.

·      Every child deserves a great school. 

·      Every school deserves all the support it needs to ensure equity.

·      Every school should have parent and community partners.

·      Every school should be anti-racist, celebrate diversity, be inclusive.

These are all worthy goals, albeit very general ones.  But what is the overall strategy to achieve them?  Privatization and the business model focusing on innovative and charter schools using an accountability system based on high stakes testing to define success seems to be their answer.  And in spite of claims that “reformers” are agnostic as to the type of school they foster, there are a few common characteristics they demand in their privatized schools:  

·      the ability to hire and fire anyone at any time; employees do not have to be licensed; at-will employees if you will.  That’s right.  No unions in innovation or charter schools.  Anyone can teach. 

·      an accountability system based on high stakes tests; schools and employees evaluated and punished by the results of these racially inappropriate tests.

·      market-driven criteria used to define school success.  Winners and losers, competition, closures, choice, chaos, churn.

·      “learning loss,” the pandemic-based slogan, must be addressed by unrelenting dependency on high stakes testing.  No test waivers for this crazy school year.  “Reformers” must have that data, and they must remind everyone that in spite of Herculean efforts on many fronts, public education has failed. 

Add to this scenario the amount of money being spent to further this agenda. Determining this takes some patience because the tax records are often difficult to find and decipher. Then try to deduce who is benefitting from each program.  This also takes some digging, for let me assure you, public education has spawned not a cottage industry but rather a mansion industry!  Search the group you are interested in and check out its board and staff.  And finally, look at the effect all of this has had on kids.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t it always about the kids?  In reality few of these extra ventures have had any effect on kids.  Fewer still touch kids directly.

Each privately funded unit on this list has had a privatized DPS connection of some sort.  Some initiatives are duplicative. Some are very narrowly focused. Some purport to be THE ANSWER to public education’s struggles.  There is no tolerance for differing beliefs.  Yet, after 15 years of experimentation Denver’s students remain mired in mediocrity, suffering from an ever narrowing curriculum and dependent on evaluations, ratings, and a definition of success based on racially biased tests.  Nationally, Denver Public Schools remains a leader in implementing “education reform” but alas, it also remains a leader in teacher and principal turnover and home to one of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the nation. 

We in Denver have been subjected to the high-octane version of “education reform” for more than 15 years.  Choice, charters, competition, closures have resulted in three unequal tiers of schools (charter schools, innovation zones, neighborhood schools).  Reformers call this “the portfolio model.”  I call it structural chaos. Michael Fullan calls it fragmentation, a system wrongly focused on “academics obsession, machine intelligence, and austerity.”  To those privatizers who say, “but you have no solution,” Fullan has one that would turn public education on its head and could possibly produce what all of us involved in the public education scene say we want: robust, equitable education for all.  Fullan has a solution for whole system success that would be focused on the human elements of public education:  learning and well-being, social intelligence, and equality of investments.   But in order for anything like this to work the superintendent and the board must be on the same page.  Elections matter.  And candidates need to understand what is at stake and what they have been elected to do.

Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. (Given today’s America it might have slipped to second place behind voting rights). I ran for school board on that belief, I witnessed its importance through the lives of my immigrant parents. I do not believe our democracy will survive without public education, but the cornerstone must change. Radically.  Dramatically.

Imagine if all of the efforts of those 50 plus organizations were combined into one united movement focused on an anti-racist, equitable systemic change.  And imagine how truly revolutionary, transformative and unifying this movement could be if it included voices and ideas not aligned with the business model but with people who are willing to truly look at things differently, people who were willing to be honest and show leadership.  Imagine how during this unique time in our nation’s history this new system could have resulted in a new and exciting way of delivering and evaluating teaching and learning, well-being, equity and equality.  Imagine how exciting this unique time in Denver could been had we taken advantage of this opportunity.  , Instead, DPS decided to continue with the status where money and power continue to rule, where a business model has been buttressed to portray a non-existent success, and where an elected Board of Education has turned its back on its mandate.

Historically “transformers” in Denver have been dogged in their attempts to get that rock to the mountain’s peak.  We have kept fighting even when betrayed by school board members, even when organization after organization has put down roots to continue the mirage of success, even when untold millions of dollars have been invested in programs that have yet to make a significant difference in educational outcomes.  Can we in Denver defy Greek mythology and end this Sisyphean nightmare? Or are there too many yet unknown obstacles in our path to stop us once again?  Elections will decide. Time will tell. 

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