Reckoning

The day after: Hard questions as education reform wakes up to Trump’s America

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

On Wednesday, Elisa Villanueva Beard, the chief executive of Teach For America, started her day by comforting her crying son as he asked if his grandmother would be sent back to Mexico, where she was born. De’Shawn Wright, the chief of staff at Newark Public Schools, texted his friend Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, seeking reassurance. Booker’s message, according to Wright: “You’ve gotta be a prisoner of hope.”

Then, like so many Americans stunned by Donald Trump’s upset, they went to work — where, in their cases, as leaders of the so-called education reform movement, the reckoning continued.

Trump’s victory not only unsettles the future role of the federal government in American schools (he has said he wants to eliminate or severely cut the U.S. Department of Education). It is also raising wrenching questions for leaders who have devoted their working lives to improving schools in poor communities.

Some of those questions are immediate. Among the 7,000-plus teachers who teach in poor schools across the country through Teach For America today, 146 are undocumented and facing the prospect of losing legal protections should Trump follow through on his promise to overturn DACA. In the state-run Newark schools district ruled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a top Trump advisor, Wright started his morning Wednesday fielding reports of immigrant students showing up to school terrified they would be deported.

Other questions are deeper and still developing. Here are four I heard from multiple education reform leaders in conversations Wednesday.

Which children should the education reform movement serve?

Several education leaders I talked to were struck by the wave of white working-class voters, including many rural and rust-belt Americans without college degrees, supporting Trump. By focusing their efforts primarily on improving schools for black and Latino students living in urban communities, has the education reform movement missed another group facing economic challenges and in need of better educational opportunity?

Reformers “largely overlooked a crisis that’s been hiding in plain sight for years,” Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, wrote almost a year ago, in a piece that was getting recirculated Wednesday among reformers. He went on:

“There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S. It’s a fair bet that their kids aren’t doing very well in school – and that they see Donald Trump as “my guy.”

“This election is showing us how unheard and unsupported so many different people feel. Like vastly different people,” said Villanueva Beard. “This morning, I was thinking, what is the implication of this for me and for us a community generally? Where have we missed it? What voices are not at the table helping to push our thinking and reach a broader coalition of people who are all seeking liberty and justice?”

Like many education reform organizations, Teach For America primarily works in urban communities. Though it does have some rural offices, almost all of those serve students of color. The one exception is Teach For America’s office in Eastern Kentucky, called Teach For America Appalachia, where 40 teachers this year entered classrooms in one of the country’s highest-poverty congressional districts — 29 percent of people lived below the federal poverty line, according to 2015 census estimates, and more than 95 percent of people are white.

“We’re in rural Appalachia,” Villanueva Beard said. “But we need to really consider, are we doing enough there?”

What does education reform have to offer rural communities?

If education reformers turn their attention to rural and rust-belt communities, what can they offer them?

While some activists have focused their energies on solutions for rural schools, they are disconnected from the school reform movement that has been ascendant the last 30 years. And mainstream reform policies — policies like higher academic standards and tougher consequences for poor performance, combined with school choice and new influxes of mission-driven teachers — don’t necessarily translate into rural environments.

“It’s probably easier to say, hey, who wants to go teach in New Orleans? It’s probably harder to say hey, who wants to teach in Youngstown, Ohio?” said Pondiscio.

Still, some pointed to small-scale efforts that suggest mainstream reformers can successfully extend their work to different contexts. Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute think tank, pointed to a charter school he visited this Monday in poverty-stricken Portsmouth, Ohio, that is authorized by Fordham. The school’s autonomy from traditional school district governance, a trait charter school supporters say allows for improvements, also seemed to be working at that school, Petrilli said.

One difference: Unlike most urban charter schools, located in the heart of Hillary Clinton’s support, in Portsmouth, Petrilli saw “Trump signs everywhere. No Clinton signs to be found in the town.”

The executive director of Teach For America’s Appalachian region, Josh Sparks, said he believes that TFA’s model of building change advocates by exposing young people to high-poverty schools firsthand can work in Appalachia.

“I’m really excited for the future,” said Sparks. “I’m really hopeful that our communities will come together and realize that we are the ones that have to be the change that we want in our region.”

How should education reform reckon with race?

Questions about which communities education reformers should serve come at a time when the group is divided on the role of race in their work. As the Black Lives Matter movement took off, some reformers increasingly adopted the language of anti-racism as a core component of their education work. Others, meanwhile, urged reformers to drop that mantle, which they saw as unnecessarily divisive.

The election of a candidate endorsed by white supremacists only accelerates this debate.

For those who have chosen to talk more directly about their desire to end racism, the election strengthened their determination. “It is undeniable that deep divisions along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines played an important role in this election cycle, and I am more convinced than ever that the work we are doing – both internally and externally – to dismantle systemic inequity is critical to our success as an organization and as a nation,” said Jonas Chartock, chief executive of Leading Educators, a reform group focused on supporting teachers in leadership roles.

Pondiscio, meanwhile, who has led the other side of the argument, also found fuel for his position in the election results. If Trump’s victory shows many voters felt alienated by Black Lives Matter-style anti-racism, then connecting education reform to that stance could erode potential support. “As far as I can tell, we have a broadly distributed performance problem in American education,” Pondiscio told me today. “So to the degree to which we have allowed charters, choice, and ed reform more broadly to be an urban thing, I think that has been a miscalculation.” (Pondiscio made a similar argument last month, here.)

Everyone I spoke with — including Pondiscio — emphasized that extending their work to serve poor white students should not threaten service of poor black and Latino students.

“We’re not going to back down from our commitment to the kids in communities that we serve now given the massive disparities and generations of that,” Villanueva Beard said. “I’m thinking of it more as an and… There are real implications, I get it, and choices, when you have limited resources and limited capacity. I think that’s the next question. But I won’t even contemplate the or.”

“This does not have to be a zero-sum game,” echoed Shavar Jeffries, president of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. “The same standards and accountability, the same need for high-quality teaching, the same need for great school leadership, the same need for adequate resources — all these young people need it.”

Will Trump voters support education reform?

As political allegiances shift, education leaders wondered who they can expect to support them going forward.

Jeffries, of Democrats for Education Reform, told me about an unexpected encounter last week while in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of his trip to Memphis was spent meeting with education reform’s traditional constituents: African-American parents who are part of the parent group Memphis Lift. But then he met another Memphis area parent by chance — his Uber driver, a white woman.

When Jeffries told her he was in town to work on school improvement, he said, “She just went on. She went on about her kids.” They hadn’t had high-quality teachers, they weren’t prepared for good jobs, and now they couldn’t find work. “She was like, yeah I’m so happy to hear somebody’s trying to do something to make the schools better. And I was like…what we’re fighting for is exactly what your child needs.”

Jeffries said today he is convinced that same commonality between struggling people of all races can ultimately create a new coalition behind school reform.

“At some point, [Trump supporters are] going to say, actually, I want to figure out how it is that I get some economic viability for myself and my family,” he said. “And if they’re going to engage in that conversation, they’re going to have to at some point reckon with the fact that they’re going to have to get skills for the global economy. And that should lead them naturally back to education reform.”

Ethan Gray, chief executive of the advocacy group Education Cities, pointed to a skit that recently aired on Saturday Night Live, where a white working class man joined as a contestant on a satirical Black Jeopardy! show — and found he had a lot in common with his competitors.

“There’s obviously some shared grievances,” Gray said, “if we could just get to talking to each other about them.”

Rolling Back Protections

Colorado’s transgender students will still get to use the bathrooms they choose despite Trump’s order. Here’s why

Six-year-old Coy Mathis in 2013. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that her Fountain school violated her civil rights when it denied her access to the girl's restroom.

Colorado students shouldn’t have to worry about new guidance from the Trump administration that rescinds federal protections for transgender students because of existing state law here.

Colorado lawmakers in 2008 passed a law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public places — including schools.

That law was put to the test in 2013 when a 6-year-old transgender student in Fountain was denied access to a girls’ restroom. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Eagleside Elementary School violated Coy Mathis’s rights to use the restroom that best aligned with her gender identity.

The ruling was considered a landmark victory for transgender rights in the state and elsewhere.

In 2016, the Obama administration attempted to shore up protections for transgender students under Title IX, the federal statute that since 1972 has outlined protections for students based on sex.

But a federal court blocked the U.S.Department of Education from enforcing schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice.

Now, the Trump administration is revoking those protections in a move announced Wednesday.

The result: protections for transgender students in some states, such as Colorado, but not in others. Thirty three states have no local laws protecting transgender students’ rights to use the restroom of their choice.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who reportedly urged Trump not to roll back the Obama-era protections — said in a statement the department was committed to protecting the rights of all students, but added the issue should be left to states and local school districts.

“Schools, communities, and families can find – and in many cases have found – solutions that protect all students,” she said. “We owe all students a commitment to ensure they have access to a learning environment that is free of discrimination, bullying and harassment.”

Civil rights groups were quick to criticize the new order.

“This is a serious attack by the Trump Administration on transgender students; opening them up to harassment, discrimination, and violence in their schools,” said One Colorado, the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group. “No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at their school or college campus. Luckily, Colorado has been on the right side of this issue for years, by including sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination law, passed in 2008.”

Update: This post has been updated to include a comment from One Colorado.

Newcomers

Indianapolis Public Schools board votes tomorrow on a resolution to support undocumented students. We annotated it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The Indianapolis Public School board can’t protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. But it can do its best to reassure families that school is still safe.

The board will vote Thursday on a largely symbolic resolution to show support for undocumented students.

The move comes amid rising tensions over the Trump administration’s plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants. At recent meetings parents have spoken to the board about families’ fears, and teachers have struggled to reassure anxious students.

“We’ve heard concerns from a number of immigrant students and families,” said board president Mary Ann Sullivan. “We want to communicate our commitment to serving and supporting them in every way we can.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that the district is already working to serve immigrant students.

“I don’t see it changing our work and what we do already,” he said. “This is the commissioners’ way, and the administration’s, of assuring families that we will continue to maintain the welcoming environment that we have.”

What follows is the full text of the resolution. We’ve annotated it with links to our past coverage and context. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.

RESOLUTION NO. 7736 – February 23rd, 2017
REAFFIRMING THE COMMITMENT TO CREATING A SAFE AND SUPPORTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT FOR ALL STUDENTS REGARDLESS OF IMMIGRATION STATUS

WHEREAS, Indianapolis Public Schools (“IPS”) is committed to creating a safe, supportive, and welcoming learning environment regardless of, among other things, race, religion, nationality, sexual identity, ability, or immigration status; and

WHEREAS, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe (1982) recognized the injustice of placing discriminatory burdens on the basis of legal characteristics over which children have no control, and held it unconstitutional to deny a free, public education to children who are not legally admitted into the United States; and

WHEREAS, the Board of School Commissioners recognizes the tremendous value and diversity that immigrant students and families bring to the school district; and

WHEREAS, the Board approved the establishment of a Newcomer Program in April 2016 to provide additional academic and community supports to students and families that have recently immigrated to the United States; and

WHEREAS, the Board of School Commissioners, and every person in its employ, is committed to standing with, and supporting, all IPS students and families to the fullest extent possible while complying with all local, state, and federal law;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis, that to the extent permitted by applicable law:

  • IPS will remain a safe and welcoming place for all students and families regardless of their immigration status;
  • IPS policies against intimidation, bullying, or discrimination of any student, including those born outside of the United States or for whom English is a second language, will continue to be strictly enforced to ensure that all students are treated with dignity and respect;
  • IPS will continue to seek opportunities to increase and enhance programs and partnerships that support and assist immigrant students and families;
  • IPS employees shall continue to follow the policy and practice of not requiring social security numbers for any enrolled or enrolling student and will continue to refrain from inquiring about a student’s or parent’s immigration status;
  • As in the past, IPS employees will not collect or provide any information regarding a student’s (or his/her family’s) immigration status, except as legally required;
  • The Board supports U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that restricts enforcement actions by ICE officers and agents in or around schools, and reminds IPS employees that they shall not assist immigration enforcement efforts unless legally required and authorized to do so by the Superintendent.

The foregoing Resolution No. 7736 was passed by the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis this 23rd day of February, 2017.