The Rhetorical War on Public Schools from the Left and Right

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell

Words matter.  What we call something affects public support for it. Is a medical meeting, “end of life counseling” or a “death panel”, the descriptions matter   So it’s not a coincidence, that we see Republican rhetoric around “soviet-era” “government schools” as a way to undermine support for traditional public schools.

What may be more surprising is that some on the Left are doing the same thing when they deride “private” charter schools.   Charter schools are public schools by law and serve high needs students at roughly equal rates as traditional district schools, and misleadingly calling them “private” is a sleight of hand to reduce public support.

Children in public schools in both sectors need every dollar they can get, this hurts.

Republicans rail against “soviet era” “government schools”

Both on the state level and at the national republic convention the rhetoric was loud and its purposes were clear.

Let’s start at the state level, where something is the matter with Kansas, and Republicans have started to describe traditional public schools as “government schools.”   This was described in the NY Times,

Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his political allies threatened to defy the court on education spending and slashed income taxes in their effort to make the state a model of conservatism. Somewhere along the way, the term “government schools” entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system. ..The intent was obvious to her, Ms. Massman said. “They are trying to rebrand public education,” she said. The use of the term has set off alarms even among some Republicans, who fear that it signals still less support, financially and otherwise, for the public schools

Similar sentiments came from the Republican convention, as covered by Ed Week,

Trump Jr. blasted schools for failing American students and serving other interests.”Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor,” he said of schools. “They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”

Trump Jr.’s rhetoric rings pretty hollow to me.  For Black folks there really was no elevator for most of our history here, and despite the huge disparities that exist, things are better statistically now than they have ever been, in terms of educational outcomes.  I don’t see some America in the rear view mirror that was so great.

But it’s not just the Right on the rhetorical warpath.

The left’s war against “private” charter schools

The Left has its own war of words with a parroting of rhetoric opposing “private” charter schools.  This is a national campaign issue picked up by Bernie Sanders, that also roosts in Oakland.

Every Oakland Unified  board meeting that discuses charters will bring out the privatization zombie.

“’Private’ charter school’, ‘private’ charter school”, the zombie repeats again and again.

Not mentioned is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

As someone who has worked with districts and charters for 20 some years and a lawyer, I have to tell you, there is no such thing, as a “private” charter school, at least not in CA or NY.  Charter schools are public schools by law, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. You may personally disagree but you would be factually wrong.

Charters must admit students by random lottery and can’t charge any tuition—so they can’t pick and choose kids. They are required to meet most of the same transparency requirements as other school districts, and have to follow relevant state and federal law, including civil rights laws.

So this isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.  But charters serve basically the same kids and deserve the same public support.

Words can hurt

Each of these rhetorical barbs is meant to delegitimize public schools, and they hurt.  Our kids in public schools, particularly in California need all the support they can get.  School funding is woefully inadequate and depends on the kindness of the legislature.  Rhetorically trashing public schools undermines public support.

I have long argued that funding in California is insufficient to meet the needs of students, and that we need to restructure school finance.  At some point we also need to bury the hatchet in the education wars, and stop seeing these political arguments as one public school sector’s loss is another sector’s gain, robbing from Pedro to pay Paul.  Instead we need to unite Pedro and Paul and fight together to give both of them the resources they need.





Beyond “Safe” Spaces for LGBTQ Students, the State, the School, and You

Recent events echo, and remind us of the hate directed against the LGBTQ community, while quieter pain, often equally devastating and more widespread permeates the halls of most schools.  Schools need to be safe places for every child and they aren’t.  You can check the stats, LGBT high school students report hearing an average of 26 anti-LGBT slurs per day, 1/3rd from staff.  What do you think that does to a fragile adolescent?

The numbers can answer that, according to research, 28% drop out because of harassment and more than half of transgendered kids attempt suicide, to name just a a few of the grim outcomes.  We need to do better.

California’s curriculum reforms are a positive first step, making LGBT folks and their movements for equality visible in the curriculum, but it’s going to take concerted action by school sites to change this culture, as well as individuals, and Oakland has a great example in the School of the Arts.

Making LGBT struggles for equality visible

You hear a lot pejoratives in schools, but homophobia dominates.  And like many of the other sticky issues, it does fall on schools to address this one.  Making LGBT people visible and situating the discussion in the struggle for equality should help.  The new California curriculum standards will, according to the LA Times  include “a study of the role of contributions” of minority groups, including “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.”

As the Times reported,

The new guidelines, now better captures “essential moments in the struggle for equality, and the evolution of communities and identities.” said a more inclusive curriculum will make LGBT students more comfortable in school.

“It allows all students to think critically and expansively about how that past relates to the present and future roles that they can play in an inclusive and respectful society,” Don Romesburg, framework director for the Committee on LGBT History, said in the statement.

Whether these curricular changes actually change life in schools for students will ultimately depend on the school cultures changing and concerted individual actions.

But schools can make a difference and one deliberately did in Oakland, the Oakland School for the Arts Charter School.

A School Takes Action

When the Oakland School for the Arts started, the founder was explicit about its purpose.  It was there to provide a top flight arts experience and create a place where kids, and LBGTQ kids and those perceived as such, could be themselves and grow.  It was more than a safe space it was a space for students to develop into themselves, cultivating their talents and identities.  He was out, and many of the staff were as well.

And there was a casual ease as he walked through the halls, greeted by students who sometimes would likely face a very tough time in comprehensive high schools, but here found a home.  I am sure it was not perfect, but in terms of being accepted, this was good.

I also like that it wasn’t the “gay” high school, it was a high quality arts school, where kids who felt different or were perceived as such fit.  This took deliberate action by a school leader, and we need more such actors, who obviously don’t need to be LGBTQ, but can create other model environments.

Individuals matter

Several years back I partially abandoned my straight privilege, and started calling my now wife, “my partner.”  Lots of funny stories out of that for another day.  But I did it so that people would not assume I was straight (and probably assume I wasn’t), and this actually became an easy shortcut to addressing homophobic statements by students—even the very small and subtle ones that usually go unaddressed.

“That’s gay”, student

“What do you mean”, me

“it’s stupid”, student

“How do you know I’m not gay, and how do you think that makes me feel?”, me

Sometimes long pauses and kind of slinking away or apologizing or trying to explain more, or sometimes they will want to argue a bit more.  But either way, it’s humanized, and I do think they will think about the conversation and saying those words, and feeling those feelings, as more and more of us make them think about it.

It really matters

The statistics paint a painful story, so I will just end with them and the push for us all to do better.

From GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network):

  • 90% of LGBT students hear anti-LGBT  comments  in  school
    • On average, an LGBT high school student will hear 26 anti-LGBT slurs per day
    • 1,’3 of which come from  a school staff member
  • 84% of LGBT youth report verbal harassment at school because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation

a      74% of Transgender youth report sexual harassment at school based on their gender identity and


a    25% of LGB students been physically hurt by another student because of their sexual orientation

  • 55% of Transgender youth report physical attacks based on their gender identity and/or expression

a     28% of LGBT youth drop out of school due to this harassment

  • The consequences of physical and verbal abuse directed towards LGBT students include truancy, dropping out of school, poor grades,  and having to repeat  a grade.   In one study,  28% of  LGBT youth dropped  out of school due   to  peer harassment.   (GLSEN)
  • LGBT youth are twice as likely to abuse alcohol three times more likely to use marijuana, and 8 times more likely to use cocaine/crack than non-LGBT youth. (Lambda Legal)
  • LGBT individuals account for 30% of all suicides each year. (Lambda Legal)
  • Greater than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide (University of NH)
  • Roughly 34% of LGBT youth report suffering physical violence from their parents as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (GLSEN)
  • Up to 46% of LGBT youth of color experience physical violence related to their sexual orientation. (GLSEN)
  • 26% of LGBT youth are forced to leave home because of conflicts with family over sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (Lambda Legal)
  • 25-40% of the youth who become homeless each year are LGBT, and the number is likely much higher. (Lambda Legal)
  • More than one anti-transgender murder per month is reported in the USA, and in the last 10 years, 51 youth have been murdered in confirmed cases of anti-transgender attacks; the actual number is likely much higher (GenderPAC)



How Oakland Unified Graduates Left Over $16 Million on the Table and What We Can Do

Educational Policy is too often about promises and pledges with few delivered results.   Amidst the best intentions, everything comes down to implementation.  And if last year’s FAFSA submission rate is any indicator, Oakland Unified has a lot of work to do, as only 45% of seniors completed one.

You know the FAFSA, the form that qualifies you or your child for financial aid.  And failing to fill it out on time can have huge consequences.  Consequences that I will bet dollars to donuts fall disproportionately on Black, Brown, and low income students.

The numbers–according to the Oakland Achieves report preview, only 45% of OUSD 12th graders submitted FAFSAs in 2015, while 72% of public charter school students did.

The Costs of a Late Form

Dataquest noted that OUSD had 2971 12th graders last year, so 55% failed to turn in a FAFSA, that’s 1634 students.  The harm in a late form is that many financial aid programs are on a first come first served basis, so the later you get your paperwork in the less money is left, and sometimes there is nothing left.

Money Magazine described this,

Why submit your FAFSA early? The best aid packages are generally awarded early on, leaving whatever funds are leftover to go to those who wait to apply. Many programs will even run out of funds well before the June 30 deadline, which means you reduce your chances for aid the longer you wait. By submitting as close to Jan. 1 as possible, you’re also more likely to comply with any state or college deadlines, which may be much earlier than the federal deadlines.

Same with Cal Grants, students can get up to $12,240 for a Cal Grant to a UC.  But those can run out.

So 1634 seniors missed this chance a year ago, while they may not all go to college, many of our students could, and they could get significant aid packages.  But they won’t without a FAFSA.  And particularly for low income families, there is a major sticker shock to college, even moreso for more elite options.   The good news is that there are resources to help.  The bad news seems to be that families aren’t accessing them.

If we assume $10,000 per student for those 1664 students, you are at over 16 million dollars.  While the calculations are admittedly rough, even if the number is half that or less it’s a huge number for Oakland’s kids and families.  And it’s completely from a missed deadline.

Being Accountable for Our Promises

As we implement the Oakland Promise which pledges an educational pathway for all students and college support, we need to pick this low hanging fruit.  The Promise envisions “future centers” where the “vision is that every Oakland high school student will have access to a Future Center where they will develop college and career plans within a decade.”  Well the FAFSA is one key metric, that should be easy to move the needle on.

Oakland is promising to do a lot of hard things for kids in the coming years, we should start with something relatively easy that pays immediate returns to kids and families.  If you don’t get your FAFSA in you are not going to college, if you get it in, the door is still open financially.

So every high school, region, charter school, and the district as a whole should set a 90% on time FAFSA completion goal.  We may not get there but we can do a hell of a lot better than 45%.

The saying goes, “if hungry people could eat words they would be fat.”  Well in education, if promises could teach, every Black, Brown, and low income kid would have a Ph.D.

Too many visions for our children have ended up mirages.  Let’s move beyond the rhetoric and ratchet up the action, and turn these promises into practices.  The FAFSA is a good place to start.


For info on Cal Grants look here

For the latest FAFSA info and deadlines here

There is help available for both schools and families search the web or check providers like the one below.

Thanks to which is a great resource for families and schools in college admissions, readiness, and support, for providing background on the FAFSA process and advice

Principals Get Right What Politics Got Wrong in SF

Working in education is tough because politicians who make the rules don’t have to play by them.  Case and point, SF Unified rejected a low cost contract for Teach for America that would have placed intern teachers in some of the most hard to staff schools.  This situation and the ongoing teacher shortage was described in the SF Chronicle article, SF Principals defy school board hire Teach for America recruits,

Schools like Bret Harte in the city’s southeast Bayview neighborhood, where 90 percent of students come from low-income families and nearly half are English learners, have an even harder time finding teachers, he said.

“I can’t find anybody who would either send me those (experienced) people or tell me they’re out there,” he said. “Those candidates are not interested in going to places that Teach for America corps members go.”

Hilinski said he posted an opening for a Spanish bilingual teacher and didn’t get a nibble. Yet he knew there were 15 Teach for America candidates — including some in special education —who wanted to be at a school like his.

Let me get this right, the district has a contract for teachers in high needs subject areas who want to work in underserved neighborhoods that other teachers don’t.  There are openings.  Principals want the TFA’ers, and the school board doesn’t move ahead with the contract, based on an ideological critique of Teach for America.    It may make sense in an education school theory class, but it doesn’t make sense for kids.

Sacrificing students on the altar of ideology

I, like many, have some TFA critiques, which have lessened over time.  But someone please show me how this adult argument helps students.  The District admits it has openings, and schools aren’t even getting applications.  Apparently the district will cut off Black and Brown children’s noses to spite their face.

And looking into my crystal ball—I will bet you the vast majority of openings in SFUSD are not at Lowell, or the more privileged schools, I guarantee you they are in the BayView, and Hunter’s Point, where low income students who need the best schools, but tend to get the worst ones are located.  Where none of the SFUSD trustees likely send their kids (just guessing).

So yeah it’s easy to stand on principle to sacrifice other people’s kids on the altar, to make speeches and inveigh against the boogeyman of privatization.

But if you want to see the real boogeyman, go to one of these classrooms without a teacher.  Watch those bright and enthusiastic Black and Brown faces dull before a parade of subpar substitutes whose eyes are trained on the clock each day, awaiting the final bell.  Listen to their parents complain about wasted years, that their kids can’t afford to waste.  And listen to the principals who actually need these teachers and know they can’t deliver without them.

Principals over “principled” arguments

This is an argument about politics.  If there were alternatives proposed by the anti-TFA folks that would be something, but there are only platitudes and hypotheticals.  And a platitude can’t teach.  Again from the Chronicle,

Board members said the district needs to focus on recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers with experience and full credentials rather than relying on two-year temporary teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools.

“We’re not going to put a Band-Aid on the problem,” Walton said. “You don’t put a Band-Aid on when you get a broken arm.”

A massive teacher shortage has schools everywhere scrambling for qualified candidates to cover classrooms this fall, especially in the areas of special education, math, science and bilingual education.

And maybe it is a band aid, but if you don’t have a practical fix for the broken arm (as SFUSD doesn’t) and you are bleeding, you do your best with band aids.  A band aid is better than nothing.

And school leaders sum this up perfectly,

“I just think this is not the time to make a political statement,” said Ricky Mendoza, principal of Flynn Elementary, who hired three Teach For America teachers for the fall. “Right now, because    of the teacher shortage, it’s basically a sellers’ market for teachers.”

Matthew Hartford, the principal at Lakeshore Elementary, hired one of the teachers. The recruit will teach special education and brings a certificate in autism. Finding someone like that in the middle of a teacher shortage is like striking gold, he said.

“It’s, hmm, what’s more precious than gold? Platinum?” Hartford asked. “To get candidates who have a passion to teach students with special needs is really tough.”

If we put actual children first, as we all say we do, the right answer is pretty clear here.

TFA is not perfect, and it will not solve California’s workforce problems.  But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  And honestly our kids can’t wait for the politicians to solve our problems, so I am heartened that principals in SF are taking the lead, while others just talk.

Ending the “Lock Out” of Black Students—How Enrollment Rules Undermine Equity

District enrollment rules conspire against equity from top to bottom.  Even those most “fair” mechanisms like lotteries.   Redistributing opportunities and privilege means upending these rules, something Oakland Unified has started, and gotten huge pushback on.   But it’s time we take a hard look and make some hard choices.  I agree with president Harris’s comments at the recent OUSD meeting that for too long Black students have been “locked out” of Oakland opportunities, and it’s time we change that.

So let’s look at how enrollment happens.  First you enroll in your district of residence.  As Ed Build noted, many district boundaries create gates of privilege—look at Oakland, within Oakland is Piedmont—its own district, those kids get 5k more than kids across the street in OUSD, and 2% of those students are poor.  So if you can afford to live in one district yards away from another you get a lot more.



Then look at neighborhood boundaries, most of OUSD’s top scoring schools are in neighborhoods with average home values in the million dollar range, so if you can’t afford to live there, you don’t get those schools.  And even to go to an out of neighborhood school, you can really only access those if you have transportation, which again privileges some and disadvantages others.   Take look at the map of school performance—you have very different odds of attending a green school based on where you live.


And, these neighborhoods aren’t random, they were created by racist redlining practices.  Check out this historic map of Oakland’s redlining (the practice of not providing loans to Black and Brown people).



Any correlations there between where they allowed us to live and the school quality?

So there is nothing natural about our neighborhoods, they were designed to be exclusive.  So assigning schools on that basis perpetuates that exclusion.

What could be more fair than a lottery?

Even the “most fair” mechanisms like lotteries and waitlists hurt disadvantaged kids.

Lotteries require folks to put in a timely application often six months before school starts, so newcomers, kids that are moving mid-year, and the less informed tend to miss them.  Same issue with waitlists.  First come first served, disserves newcomers or latecomers—and those are students who tend to have greater needs.

The heart of the matter

The big issue is the supply of high quality schools and who gets access to them.  We don’t have enough high quality seats to meet the demand for them, so the question becomes who gets them.  Right now, the system privileges the more privileged.  This should not be a surprise, despite frequent equity talk, very few have ever walked the walk.  And even fewer will give up their privilege.

There are small changes we can make; reserving seats for newcomers or latecomers, giving preferences for diverse students, providing greater transportation, or doing away with ranked waitlists and just doing a lottery for each opening—without regard to when someone applies.   The issue is ultimately one of will though, and a conscious redistribution of privilege.

As president Harris stated at a June board meeting, “we have been locked out” talking of the lack of access of Black families in East Oakland to high quality schools.  We know this.  We also know how to fix it, but when push comes to shove, and the din of the loudest and most privileged and empowered voices drowns out those who have been locked out, will we have the courage?