damage control

Facing outcry from educators, Kenneth Cole to remove billboard

The Kenneth Cole billboard is visible from the West Side Highway, near 125th Street.

Hundreds of angry educators from across the country seem to have taught the clothing retailer Kenneth Cole a lesson about diction—and union politics.

Late last week we broke the news about a company billboard that invoked a loaded education policy issue using a slogan many teachers viewed as an attack on their profession.

This weekend teachers and advocates responded, in a flurry of posts on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and a petition 600 signatures strong, calling for a boycott of Cole’s clothing company. Even national union leader Randi Weingarten waded into the fray with Twitter posts criticizing the company, which is headed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brother-in-law.

The company has now responded. This afternoon, Kenneth Cole Productions used Twitter to send a public message to the creator of the petition, a D.C. teacher-turned-activist, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, that it plans to remove the billboard.

“We misrepresented the issue – one too complex for a billboard – and are taking it down,” the company posted from its Twitter account, @KennethCole.

This weekend, the company posted a different Twitter message clarifying that the ad campaign’s “Intent is to stimulate debate, not pit teachers against students.” The message now appears to have been deleted. The company has not responded to a request for comment today.

But some teachers and advocates say the opposite message came off in the billboard, which reads, “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights…” and directs viewers to a website that asks, “Should underperforming teachers be protected?”

“Teachers and students both deserve respect; however, they both have different roles in education. And they are not opponents,” wrote Joann Mickens, an education advocate in Mississippi, on the petition website.

Dozens of advocates joined the call for a boycott of the company, called Kenneth Cole Productions, writing about it on Twitter with the hashtag #boycottkennethcole.

“Don’t pit teachers against students,” Weingarten tweeted, “and Take down your hurtful ad, Kenneth Cole!”

A Queens high school teacher said the billboard’s effect was to “trash” the teaching profession. “Our fondest wish for children in our care is that they grow up,” the teacher wrote in a blog post. “[Kenneth Cole Productions is] hardly doing anyone any favors.”

A GothamSchools commenter posted a letter the commenter sent to the company.

“I have long bought Kenneth Cole products because of the quality and style you offer, and I have also liked that your company does take public stands on important social issues, but this campaign is something I would not have expected your company to be involved in,” the commenter said. “Unfortunately, you have lost a long-time, loyal customer with this ad campaign.”

Boycotts are often ineffective at cutting into a company’s revenues, but can still put pressure on one to change its practices or political messages, according to Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has researched the effects of boycotts. He said the boycott could damage the company’s reputation, if the billboard’s perceived message really was unintended.

“If the message is not clear, or confusing, or doesn’t resonate with its core audience, then it could backfire and create problems for its reputation in the future,” King said.

Salon.com writer suggested that, in tying its brand identity to the political “movement du jour,” the Kenneth Cole campaign is part of a trend of “elite” companies wading into education reform debates.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers offered a tongue-in-cheek response that reflected the loaded political implications of the ad’s language.

“We can only hope that the company’s fashion sense is more sophisticated than its treatment of complicated educational and political issues,” a spokesman said in a statement.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”