Tuesday Reading List: RIP Gene Wilder, Balancing Democracy in NOLA, and Special Education

Before I say anything else today, I want to pay quick respect to Gene Wilder, who died yesterday. As a child, Wilder's portrayal of Willy Wonka made me feel like I was being let in on a secret. The secret was something like, "It's all much weirder than you think." For those of us who grew up devouring Roald Dahl, Wilder gave life to a vision of childhood that was dark not for the sake of darkness, but rather for the sake of being truthful. As an adult, I grew to appreciate the extent to which Wilder's comedy was not only groundbreaking from a creative perspective, but also from the standpoint of race relations. His work with Richard Pryor was hilarious, and it's not Wilder's fault that the Black-White buddy comedy shtick was driven into the ground by the end of the 1980s. That didn't stop Chris Stewart and I from driving it EVEN FURTHER into the ground on our podcast. RIP Gene Wilder.

In education news, Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of Louisiana's Recovery School District, shares some thoughts about balancing progress and politics in New Orleans:

The essential role of leadership is to guarantee that every family has access to good public schools, maintain high standards for charter schools, protect school autonomy and equitably serve all children. We need a system of schools where more Black and Latino students take and pass advanced placement courses and where ACT scores of all students are rising. We need a system where low-income and minority enrollment in gifted and talented programs reflects the deep well of talent that we know exists among our children. We need a system where students with disabilities have the support and opportunities they need to fulfill their educational dreams. In short, we need a system that is flexible enough to adapt over time and rigorous enough to ensure that our students can compete anywhere with anyone.

The schools in New Orleans, most of them charters since Hurricane Katrina, are caught in a bit of governance limbo between state and municipal control. Dobard is trying to find the right balance between achieving academic progress and preserving democratic controls, so it's worth digesting everything he's saying here. Elsewhere in the American South, the United States Department of Education has settled a long-standing lawsuit with the state of South Carolina over special education funding. Daarel Burnette II at Ed Week has the story:

A federal requirement, known as state maintenance of financial support, prohibits states from decreasing the amount of money they spend on students with special needs unless they get special permission from the department. South Carolina subsequently sued, arguing that the funding was cut unfairly ... The [US Department of Education] returned some of that money in 2011 after the state managed to scrape together funds saved from low gas prices and better-than-expected tax collections in order to pay for special education services, according to the Associated Press. But at least $51 million in federal funds was being withheld from the state. On Thursday, the department agreed to release that $51 million to South Carolina districts to spend on students with disabilities. In exchange, the state will pay an extra $60 million to districts, money it withheld from districts during the recession.

This all might seem rather byzantine, but understanding the interconnections between federal, state, and local funding for schools is critical to knowing just how messed up our school finance system is. There's no simple way to explain this situation, but the federal government all but prohibits states and districts from ever spending less on special education than they did in the prior year. Like most rules, the spirit of this one is good - making sure that special education students are well served - but in practice it causes all kinds of shenanigans.

Elsewhere in political shenanigans, Rachel Slade at Boston Magazine has a long, level-headed look at the local charter school debate:

Of course, what makes this debate even thornier is that ultimately it’s not just about educating children. It’s about the role of government and organized labor, and about your faith in data in the classroom. It’s also about how much money you think your kid’s teacher should earn. Pro- and anti-charter people have been through this all before—they know each other’s talking points and can often pinpoint exactly where a statement, statistic, or argument came from. You’ll hear a lot of well-meaning crap on both sides, as well as plenty of thoughtful analysis based on outdated information. In any event, the sides are strapped in and ready for battle over the soul of public education in Boston ... Do we want more charters in Boston? As long as the city continues to have struggling schools ... the short answer is yes. Charters may have fallen down on innovation, but they do provide very good environments for at-risk learners. 

Sounds reasonable to me! Finally, Hayley Glatter, Emily DeRuy, and Alia Wong have a piece in The Atlantic looking at the antiquated nature of the school calendar:

With that in mind, we asked a variety of prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—what their vision of a perfect school system would be. We asked them to look beyond laws, politics, and funding to imagine a utopian system of learning. We wanted to know how these men and women would critically examine the most macro and micro aspects of school and reform these elements in a perfect world. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build their educational Garden of Eden. We’ll be publishing their answers to one question every day this week. The responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I'll leave you with that moment of education zen.