Charter Schools Are Not A “Republican” Thing

As I noted earlier this week, a group of anti-reform activists in Colorado recently passed an amendment to the state Democratic Party platform opposing the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and calling on the organization drop “Democrats” from its name.1

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time DFER has been attacked by groups from within its own party. Much of the ire directed at DFER is due to its support for public charter schools, which opponents portray as a part of a Republican plot to dismantle public education.

Those opponents include groups like the American Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers (an AFT affiliate), and Alliance for Quality Education (which receives – surprise! – major funding from AFT), who together launched a website calling DFER and its supporters “Democrats in name only,” while insinuating that the organization is a kind of political Trojan Horse backed by wealthy GOP donors like the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but the teachers unions and their allies have repeatedly demonstrated they have no compunction about misrepresenting the facts when it suits their interests. Furthermore, their contention that DFER’s support for charters is somehow antithetical to the values and beliefs of the Democratic Party conveniently ignores the integral role that Democrats have played in the charter school movement over the past thirty years.

To illustrate this point, I created the table below listing the states that have charter school laws on the books, as well as the year in which those laws were enacted. It also shows which party (blue for Democrats and red for Republicans) controlled the governorship, the senate, and the house in each of those states when their charter laws were passed.

The chart above lists all of the states with charter school laws, the year those laws went into effect, and shows which party controlled the governorship, the state senate, and the state house when those laws passed. Obviously, blue = Democrats and red = Republicans.

The data makes clear that charter schools are not a “Republican” thing, but one of those rare issues around which Democratic and Republican lawmakers could find common ground to provide children with much-needed educational options. In some cases, such as my home state of Louisiana, Democrats can actually take full credit for the introduction of charters since their party held a “trifecta” in state government at the time.

In short, those who call DFER and its supporters “Democrats in name only,” are either ignorant of the party’s history or are simply trying to rewrite it. But if they think that pro-reform Democrats are just going to roll over while they are attacked for trying to expand educational opportunities for kids, they are sorely mistaken.

DFER president Shavar Jeffries had a message for anti-reform Democrats this week: “We are not going anywhere.”

As DFER president Shavar Jeffries said in a response to the dustup in Colorado this week: “If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it.”

“We are not going anywhere,” he added.

  1. Full disclosure: I am an (unpaid) advisory board member for the Louisiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, although the thoughts expressed here are exclusively my own. 

Mile High Madness

On Saturday, state delegates of the Colorado Democratic Party passed an amendment to the party platform opposing the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform1 and calling on the organization drop “Democrats” from its name.

The vote followed an ugly scene on the floor of the party’s state assembly meeting, in which delegates loudly booed DFER Colorado state director Jennifer Walmer as she attempted to defend her organization, noting that the group is supported by a slew of prominent Colorado Democrats and is “focused on the idea that every child deserves access to a high-quality education.”

The jeering continued as others rose to oppose the platform amendment, including a charter school teacher and a delegate who urged the assembly to reject what he said amounted to an education reform “litmus test.”

DFER Colorado state director Jen Walmer was booed and shouted down by delegates as she attempted to defend the organization.

“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” Walmer told Chalkbeat after delegates passed the amendment. “I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of Trump and DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”

Part of a concerted strategy?

Not only was it a horrible display of unity, but it was the latest example of what appears to be a concerted strategy to get anti-education reform positions enshrined in Democratic Party platforms, and by extension, to marginalize reformers within the party.

It’s an effort that has its origins in 2013, when the California Democratic Party passed a resolution, co-sponsored by the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, that attacked DFER as a front for “corporations, Republican operatives and wealthy individuals dedicated to privatization and anti-educator initiatives.”

Interestingly enough, two years later that very same resolution ended up in the hands of a secret, NEA-funded group of teachers union officials and anti-reform activists called the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. As I documented in a series of blog posts in 2016, I used public records requests to secure more than a year’s worth of the group’s internal correspondence, in which they fleshed out a strategy to secure a statewide moratorium on charter schools. The documents also showed that LAROS was planning to present its own anti-DFER resolution, modeled on the one passed in California in 2013, to the Louisiana Democratic Party.

The thirty core members of LAROS included officers from the Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers and long-time anti-reform activists like Karran Harper Royal.

The teachers unions and their allies subsequently pulled off a public relations coup when they rammed through a series of last-minute amendments to the national Democratic Party platform in the weeks leading-up to the presidential convention in 2016. The changes opposed the use of test results to evaluate schools and teachers, upheld the right of parents to opt-out of testing, and criticized charter schools.

These things matter.

Some pro-reform Democrats respond to these efforts to hijack party platforms with a shrug. They insist platforms don’t really matter and they can point to significant numbers of Democratic voters and elected officials who support things like charters and school accountability.

These are both valid points. I mean, how many of us has read their state Democratic Party platform cover to cover? (Me neither.) And yes, it’s true that there are plenty of Democratic voters and officeholders who agree with reformers on education issues. But those aren’t the folks we need to be worried about.

We need to worry about the registered Democrat outside Boston who doesn’t really understand charters, but heard they’re promoted by billionaire Republicans and therefore votes against raising the charter cap. We need to worry about the freshman Democratic lawmaker who might be inclined to support school accountability legislation, but is afraid the teachers union will attack her for supporting the “Trump-Devos agenda.” We want the parent in Los Angeles to understand that when their school board member backs a unified enrollment system, it doesn’t mean he’s a “privatizer” intent on destroying public education.

Yet when our opponents are able to get their policies adopted in Democratic Party platforms, it generates headlines that make it harder for our messages to reach those folks. It also makes reformers and the issues we champion appear out-of-sync with the party mainstream, even though these very same policies were championed by the Obama Administration.

Arne and Barack: The original Democrats for Education Reform.

DFER and other pro-reform Democrats shouldn’t cede the field when it comes to these intramural fights. It means there needs to be an effort to get reformers elected as delegates, members of state Democratic Central Committees, and other positions of influence within the party. We also need to ensure we’re at the table when things like platforms and endorsements are being debated. Otherwise pro-reform Democrats could find themselves not only shouted down by their party, but possibly crowded out of it.

  1. Full disclosure: I am an (unpaid) advisory board member for the Louisiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, although the thoughts expressed here are exclusively my own. 

David Sirota Joins Union-controlled Capital & Main

Capital & Main, a Los Angeles-based non-profit media outlet controlled by a group of labor unions –  including the California Teachers Association and California School Employees Association – has hired David Sirota to lead a new national investigative desk that the organization is launching this summer.

In many ways, the Sirota-Capital & Main marriage is a perfect fit. As I revealed in a post last fall, Capital & Main is essentially a front for organized labor trying to pass itself off as a legitimate news outlet. Their board is packed with representatives from CTA, CSEA, SEIU, as well other union-funded groups. Capital & Main has also received significant funding from unions, including the California Federation of Teachers.

Some of the unions represented on Capital & Main’s board of directors.

Nevertheless, Capital & Main has consistently failed to disclose their close ties to labor in their reporting, which almost invariably promotes the unions’ talking points. Their education coverage, in particular, has been completely one-sided with incessant attacks on charter schools and other education reforms.

Soon after I published my piece bringing attention to their transparency problems, Capital & Main briefly appended disclosures to their articles, acknowledging that “several of the unions cited or quoted in this series are financial contributors to Capital & Main.” However, those disclosures have since either disappeared or have been tucked away within their stories.

As for Sirota, while he presents himself as a investigative journalist, he has instead built a reputation as the enfant terrible of the populist left, someone more interested in bomb-throwing than getting his story right. For example, he once praised Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez for bringing about an “economic miracle” in that country, a claim that would no doubt elicit cynical laughter from those now living in the dystopian nightmare that is Venezuela. He also incessantly attacked Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, while failing to acknowledge his past ties to her primary challenger, Bernie Sanders.

Although these sort of stories play well with the Democracy Now! crowd, his bombastic approach has drawn criticism from mainstream journalism. FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver has accused Sirota of “playing fast and loose with the truth” and has called his arguments “self-righteous, accusatory, and oversimplistic.” Meanwhile, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth and contributor to The Upshot at the New York Times, has said Sirota’s “rhetoric makes Bill O’Reilly look subtle.”

Earlier this year, Sirota resigned from his post at the International Business Times, where he had served as a senior writer for the past four years. Before his move to IBT, he was a staff writer at PandoDaily, until he was abruptly fired in 2014 at the behest of the news site’s investors.

In January, it was announced that Sirota had been tapped to lead Shareblue Media, an initiative launched by long-time Democratic operative David Brock, which he promised would be “the left’s answer to Breitbart.” But two weeks later, Sirota suddenly backed out of the ShareBlue job after apparently disagreeing with Brock over the editorial direction of the site.

Given his past, perhaps it would have been wiser for Capital & Main to hold off on their hiring announcement until Sirota was officially on the job.

Post-script: 4/16/18

My friend Michael Vaughn reached out on Twitter to share this gem of an article from 2011, when Sirota’s wife mounted an unsuccessful bid for a seat on Denver’s school board. The piece recounts how Sirota ejected a journalist from his wife’s election night party because the reporter worked for Education News Colorado (now known as Chalkbeat), which Sirota claimed was “not a real news organization.” Sirota later defended his action, explaining that Education News Colorado was “a propaganda website with a vested interest in trying to skew media coverage.”

Read the whole ironic story by clicking the link below:

David Sirota bars Education News Colorado reporter from Emily Sirota on election night

Update about the Jimenez-Draper Carson race below. By now, you’ve heard that Anne Rowe and Allegra “Happy” Haynes won seats on the Denver Public Schools board, and that incumbent Arturo Jimenez narrowly claimed victory over reformer Jennifer Draper Carson. As for Rowe opponent Emily Sirota, you won’t read her reaction…


Mystery On The Bayou

Results from the latest round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – also known as “The Nation’s Report Card” – were released on Tuesday.

Nationally, performance on the bi-annual assessment of fourth and eighth grade students remained more-or-less unchanged from the previous administration of NAEP in 2015, although the average score on the eighth grade reading exam did see a slight uptick.

Unfortunately, the NAEP results for my home state of Louisiana were even more disappointing. Fourth grade reading and math scores both fell, while eighth grade reading and math scores remained flat.

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As might be expected, opponents of Louisiana’s education reforms have seized upon the results as evidence that those policies have failed, and in particular have sought to pin the blame for the NAEP score drop on State Superintendent John White.

For example, Michael Deshotels, a former executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators who is now a paid lobbyist for the union, claimed in a recent blog post that the NAEP results prove White “has failed miserably at all his efforts and our children have suffered while he experimented with untested, unsound theories.”

Michael Deshotels and John White.

In truth, Deshotels’ attack is little more than a politically-motivated and wholly unoriginal cheap shot from someone who’s been on the losing side of Louisiana’s education reform battles over the past 20 years.

Every time NAEP results are released, education advocates of all stripes attempt to tie the rise or fall of scores to policies they either espouse or oppose. Consequentially, every two years education experts find themselves compelled to remind everyone that it’s very difficult to establish a causal relationship between NAEP scores and specific policies. Folks like Deshotels (or “statistician” Mercedes Schneider) who insist that this year’s NAEP scores “prove” that Louisiana’s reforms have failed clearly haven’t gotten that message in their heads.

Nevertheless, the drop in Louisiana’s NAEP scores is something of a mystery for a couple of reasons. First of all, the state saw statistically-significant jumps in fourth grade reading and math scores in NAEP in 2015, yet those gains were reversed in the recently released results. It’s hard to discern the possible causes behind the decline because there hasn’t been any radical shifts in education policy over the past two years. There also hasn’t been a dramatic overhaul or controversy (like we experienced during the transition to Common Core) that one could point to as a possible explanation.

More students qualified for TOPS last year ever before, thanks to the steady rise in ACT scores.

The overall drop in NAEP scores is doubly confounding when one considers that so many other measures of educational progress in the state are trending in the other direction. On Tuesday, the same day NAEP results went public, the Louisiana Department of Education announced (hat tip to the comms folks at LDOE on the timing 😏) that the Class of 2017 was the first in state’s history to have more than 50 percent of students qualify for the TOPS college scholarship program, thanks to the steady rise in ACT scores over the past six years. Moreover, the state has made significant gains in its cohort graduation rate, A.P. participation and test results, and college matriculation over the same period.

In an effort to explain the decline, State Superintendent White has raised the question of whether the shift to computer-based testing in the most recent NAEP assessment could have negatively impacted scores, especially in poorer states like Louisiana where many children have limited access to technology. Previous studies have shown that students tend to do worse on digitally-administered exams when compared to the traditional paper-and-pencil format.

Officials with the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exams, maintain that they took several measures to ensure that the switch to computer-based testing would not have an impact on the results and have promised to release further information on those steps to White and other state education leaders who request it.

While the cause(s) behind the drop in Louisiana’s NAEP scores may remain a mystery – at least for now – it’s important to keep in mind that we shouldn’t blindly jump to conclusions. This year’s disappointing results should certainly prompt educators and policymakers to step back, reassess, identify opportunities for improvement, but there’s plenty of evidence to show that public education in Louisiana has made tremendous progress over the past decade.

A single set of NAEP scores doesn’t suddenly change that fact.