Future of Schools

Ravitch tangles with school reformers on Butler panel

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Education historian Diane Ravitch and Friedman Foundation CEO Robert Enlow debated at Butler University last March.

A lively, and sometimes pointed, debate about how best to improve schools followed the premiere of a documentary developed by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation tonight at Butler University.

Headlining the five-person panel was Diane Ravitch, the historian and one-time school reform advocate turned national spokesman against testing, school choice, test-based teacher evaluation and other proposals she says aim to privatize public schools.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” Ravitch said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and education and which have the least. Then we punish the children of the families that have the least.”

But advocates for reform, including The Mind Trust CEO David Harris and Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation, argued that charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and other strategies can help improve education in Indiana.

“To just assert that charters are bad doesn’t allow us to focus on policy issues,” Harris said. “I understand the frustration that caused people to want to make this movie. We in the reform community need to do a better job of having this conversation.”

The film interviewed a host of teachers and experts who criticized a series of reform the state has undertaken in the last several years. It made the case that money was being drained from public schools and that experiments like vouchers and charter schools were not working or unfair.

“Standardized tests are the new bully in school,” the narrator says early in the film, setting its tone. “Inspiration cowers in the corner.”

The 2,100 seat Clowes Memorial Hall on Butler’s campus was mostly full with an audience of educators and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A huge cheer went up when the movie showed former Indiana state Superintendent Tony Bennett resigning from the equivalent post in Florida after charges surfaced from his Indiana emails that he and his staff raised a charter school’s grade.

The panel discussion was polite but neither side was able to say much to persuade the other.

Ravitch and panelist Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne schools, mostly argued for placing more trust in teachers and offering more support for traditional public schools. Harris and Enlow advocated for using a variety of approaches to improving education, including charter schools and vouchers, especially for benefit of poor children.

“There is no question poverty creates enormous challenges,” Harris said. “We also know, thank God, that kids from any background and circumstances, if given the opportunity to go to a great school, can excel as well as any other group of kids. There are schools out there doing that.”

Robinson, noting arguments in the film that Indiana public schools have seen tuition support decline since 1998 when adjusted for inflation, cited one of her best performing schools. A major factor in its success, she said, was tremendous community support to supplement the work of teachers.

“There are sometimes more adults than children in that school,” she said. “We are seeking community partners. Let’s not fool ourselves. Resources also matter.”

The most heated exchange came after Ravitch argued that public schools should be supported and paid for as a public obligation, like police, fire protection, parks and beaches, not turned into a market for companies to profit from.

Enlow responded that government often pays for its obligations while still allowing those who benefit to make choices. Food stamp recipients or Medicare patients, he said, can spend their government benefits at any grocery store or hospital, even private hospitals run by churches.

That brought a flash of indignation from Robinson.

“It’s insulting to equate public education with food stamps,” she said, promoting a roar of approval from the audience.

At the end, moderator Scott Sander of WISH-TV asked each panelist, what change in education should everyone get behind?

“Allow all testing to be done by teachers and eliminate all standardized testing,” Ravitch said.

Enlow said everyone should support allowing kids to go to a quality school of any kind. Robinson advocated for deciding what education costs and funding that amount. Harris wanted to move decisions out of the central office and to individual schools.

“Let’s step back and ask what’s truly effective in any school type,” said the fifth panelist, Greg Lineweaver, an English teacher at North Central High School. “Remove the politics.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”