Tuesday Reading List: All Politics Are Local, Except When They're Not

Today's Reading List bounces back and forth between national and local perspectives on education reform. At the national level, Ed Week covers the Democratic Party presidential platform committee, which is working out its stance on education issues. So far the language is noncommittal:

There's not a whole lot, but there are a couple of issues that might be familiar to regular readers. The draft says the party supports supplying the resources educators need to "raise achievement for all students," and "demands strong public schools in every zip code" ... Although you won't find the phrase in the platform highlights released by the party, the "school-to-prison pipeline" also gets attention. That's according to Maya Harris, a senior policy adviser to Clinton and her campaign's official representative to the committee that's creating the party platform.

A couple of things to consider here. First, platform creation is a political exercise, not a policy-making one. It seems wishy-washy, because it is wishy-washy. The other interesting thing to watch here is the extent to which the Democratic party reverts to a more establishment norm this cycle. It's easy to forget that Obama, who supported an aggressive reform agenda, was an insurgent candidate in 2008. While Clinton had the support of the educational establishment back then, Obama received support from, and subsequently helped drive the agenda of, the reform wing.

Looking forward to 2017, a reform-oriented Democrat wants to challenge the incumbent mayor of Los Angeles:

Charter school founder Steve Barr on Monday filed papers to run for Los Angeles mayor, launching a long-shot candidacy that could reshape the dynamics of incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti’s reelection bid by drawing voters’ attention to the city’s struggling school system. Barr, a Silver Lake resident and darling of education-reform advocates who has not previously held elected office, said he has grown impatient with what he sees as Garcetti’s passivity in the face of a worsening public education crisis ... “The school district – and I’m saying this as a big fan of the school district, as a parent in the school district – in some ways is a little bit like an alcoholic who hasn’t bottomed out yet,” Barr said. “It’s getting better, but we can’t afford as a city to just let this thing linger out there, because it’s not just affecting them anymore. It’s affecting our city and it has for a long time.”

After fifteen years of the federal government driving the education agenda, I'm convinced that the primary transformation activity for the next bit of time is going to happen at the local level. There seems to be an appetite not just for new policy ideas, but for new ways of engaging local communities in those ideas. Barr's candidacy fits with that pattern. (In the interest of full disclosure, Barr is a personal friend, who my wife once described as"One of the only powerful white dudes I've ever met who took me seriously as a woman with opinions.")

One city where the reform agenda seems off course is Detroit, where efforts at both district and charter school reform keep missing the mark. The New York Times has a devastating story about the state of play there. One of the problem seems to be a lax regulatory environment for charters:

Nationally, some charter school groups praise Michigan for allowing so many institutions to grant charters. But the practice has also allowed bad schools to languish: When universities have threatened to close them, other universities have granted another charter. By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014. “People here had so much confidence in choice and choice alone to close the achievement gap,” said Amber Arellano, the executive director of the Education Trust Midwest, which advocates higher academic standards. “Instead, we’re replicating failure.”

The charters in Michigan are doing something that, in the private sector, would be called "regulatory arbitrage." They're seeking out ways to avoid accountability, through exploiting policy loopholes. Having multiple authorizers that operate under different rules facilitates that practice. While the free-market fringe of the reform movement is still unjustifiably attached to this ridiculous practice, it leads to bad schools and needs to stop. Another charter practice that needs to stop is disproportionate suspension policies, which United States Education Secretary John King, who founded a charter school, is pushing today:

King is U.S. Education Secretary, and he plans to recognize the 25th anniversary of the nation’s charter school movement by calling on charter leaders to rethink their approach to discipline and reduce their reliance on suspensions and expulsions. Within King’s planned speech Tuesday are echoes of critics who have long accused charter schools of using harsh “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” discipline tactics, which often end up pushing students out and sending them back to neighborhood schools that are responsible for serving any child who shows up ... King’s remarks are just the latest sign of a shift within the charter-school movement — or some parts of it, at least — on the issue of discipline.

As charters serve more and more children, they justifiably will receive more and more public scrutiny. The two biggest threats to their future growth and success will be a) opposition from status quo forces, which is real, and b) their own unforced errors on issues of quality. One of those two things is in the control of charter schools leadership ...

To end the list with a little good news, here's the story of forty homeless high school students in Chicago who attended prom through the support of philanthropy! Pretty cool:

TLP Chicago stands for Teen Living Programs Chicago, an organization that serves homeless youth ages 14-24. TLP Chicago partnered with Sisterhood of the Traveling Heart to host the prom. It was the first time that either organization had done so. The women attending the prom received complimentary hair styling and make-up applications while the men were able to wear tuxedoes. Donations made by local and national organizations made all of that possible.
 Photo from Blavity.com/He Shoots Lyfe Photography

Photo from Blavity.com/He Shoots Lyfe Photography