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.”

School Closings

Chicago schools look beyond closures to tackle declining student population

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Francis Parkman Elementary School in the Fuller Park neighborhood is one casualty of the 2013 school closings in Chicago. It's still vacant and boarded up.

The Chicago Board of Education plans to vote Wednesday on a new policy that would target underenrolled schools for help rather than closure.

The policy would bring Chicago Public Schools in compliance with a state law enacted in August requiring the school district to adopt a policy addressing schools deemed underenrolled and list potential interventions for schools losing enrollment.

School district spokesman Michael Passman wrote in a statement that the policy continues work the district has already begun to back schools wrestling with dwindling or low enrollment, including $15 million in recent funding for such schools and a new application process for schools to add programs to attract more students.

“We are fully committed to providing the supplemental funding and support that schools with low enrollment need to offer students a high-quality education,” Passman said.

Five years after staging the biggest mass school closing in American history, the district appears to be backing away from shuttering schools as a first response to underenrollment.  

However, the prospect of more closings provokes apprehension, especially in Chicago’s African-American community, which bore the brunt of the 2013 closings. Indeed, the district is currently phasing out several underenrolled high schools in Englewood, a predominantly black South Side neighborhood.

Chicago Public Schools, while on better financial footing than in 2013, is still wrestling with dramatically shrinking enrollment and could have some tough choices to make. A report released in September projects enrollment to decline 5 percent by 2021, from 371,000 to 352,000 students.

Parents, students and community organizers have vociferously opposed closing schools.

“What we want to do is make sure that school closures in Chicago are the last resort, and use innovative strategies to keep schools as anchors in the community as much as possible,” said Cecile Carroll, co-director of Humboldt Park community group Blocks Together, emphasizing studies showing the 2013 closings hurt students both academically and emotionally.

Carroll, a community organizer and public school parent, served on a 2008 state task force that reviewed Chicago’s school closings process and long-term facilities planning.

The school district’s new policy defines an underenrolled school as one using less than 70 percent of the building’s ideal capacity, which the school district determines via its utilization formula. An underenrolled school must also have experienced two consecutive years of enrollment declines of more than 10 percent, and not have already received any of the programming interventions stipulated in the policy.

Among the measures the new policy suggests to keep the schools open: Redrafting attendance boundaries, renting extra space to a government agency or other entity, halting other school expansion plans that could siphon away students, and collaborating with schools on strategies such as adding programs and crafting joint-use agreements for their campuses.

The district already co-locates some  schools on the same campus. The Little Village/Lawndale High School Campus contains four autonomous high schools, including Infinity Math Science and Technology High School and World Language Academy High School, both Level 1+ schools with growing enrollment, and Multicultural Academy of Scholarship and Greater Lawndale High School For Social Justice, both level 2+ schools that have seen enrollment decline in recent years.

Carroll stressed that the district’s enrollment analysis shows thousands of unfilled seats at top-rated schools. Underenrolled schools need help marketing themselves, she said, suggesting the district could help schools improve their websites and their social media presence to publicize “great things happening in their building.”

“Being able to get rid of any stigma that’s been around the school will be important,” she said.

Rock the vote

Not sure how to vote for Detroit school board? Read candidate answers to six key questions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Eight candidates are running for two open seats on the Detroit school board.

The eight candidates vying for two seats on the Detroit school board include a recent high school grad, a financial analyst, a former district superintendent, a youth sports coach, and religious leaders.

For the most part, they all say they want to help improve the city schools but they have different ways of getting there.

Some candidates say the district should close some of its smaller schools that aren’t fully enrolled. Others say they believe there are ways to raise the $500 million the district says it needs to bring its buildings up to modern standards.

Some candidates are open to collaborating with charter schools on things like enrollment and transportation. Others have concerns about collaborating with schools that compete directly with the district for students and staff.

Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit surveyed school board candidates on six important issues facing the district. Seven of the eight candidates submitted written answers, either this week or last month in the lead-up to our school board candidate forum.

Scroll down to read their answers, which have been published verbatim, though they have been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar, and syntax. Read all of the candidates’ answers or click only on the names of the candidates you’re considering to see their answers.

Two seats are up for election this year. Deborah Hunter-Harvill is the only incumbent running for re-election. All seats on the seven-member Detroit school board represent the whole city, not smaller districts.