Monday, June 29, 2009

Charter Schools Win a High-Profile Convert

Boston's mayor risks the ire of the teachers' unions

Tom Menino, the longtime Democratic mayor of this city, is not known for rocking the boat or for eloquence. But earlier this month he stunned many in the city when he gave a powerful speech about school reform.

The speech took aim at the lack of progress in dozens of low-performing, inner-city Boston public schools, many of which have not met adequate yearly progress for five years running.

"To get the results we seek -- at the speed we want -- we must make transformative changes that boost achievement for students, improve quality choices for parents, and increase opportunities for teachers," Mr. Menino said. "We need to empower our educators to quickly innovate and implement what works." With that, Mr. Menino abandoned nearly two decades of personal opposition to nonunion charter schools, which have been bitterly resisted by Massachusetts teachers unions and their political allies. "I believe that the increased flexibility that charters provide can . . . help us close the achievement gap," he declared.

"Betrayal," cried the Boston Teachers Union on its Web site, decrying the "glee" with which Mr. Menino's "sudden turnaround" was greeted by "anti-public school and anti-tax zealots." That's a typically hyperbolic reference to Massachusetts' growing legions of charter-school supporters, an ideologically-diverse group that includes the Boston Globe's liberal editorial page, a bipartisan group of state officeholders who've funneled billions in new revenue into the public schools, and at least 13,000 pro-charter Boston taxpayers -- the 5,000 families with children in charter schools and 8,000 on waiting lists to enroll.

But the inflammatory rhetoric of the Boston Teachers Union reflects the alarm triggered by Mr. Menino's speech. "He has really thrown down the gauntlet to the union," notes Linda Brown of the charter-school support group Building Excellent Schools. "He's responding to an enormous overcurrent and undercurrent of public pressure over the fact that nothing is changing in too many schools. He's used his political acuteness to see there's a perfect storm."

What flashed on Mr. Menino's radar screen so urgently? Political pressure, most notably from the Obama administration, which has explicitly linked charter-school expansion with access to $5 billion in new education reform funding.

"States that don't have the stomach or the political will, they're going to lose out," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press recently. "That's $5 billion, b-i-l-l-i-o-n, up for grabs," moaned Mr. Menino in an interview with me. "I've gotta sit here sucking my thumb because I can't get reforms?"

Credit pride and anger for Mr. Menino's change of heart as well. While he is a prohibitive favorite to win a fifth term this fall, two of his challengers have pointedly endorsed charters and needled him on the lingering failures of many city schools. His palpable embarrassment over his inability to overhaul Boston's schools is compounded by the sight of -- in his view -- lesser cities forging ahead with uncapped charter growth.

Mr. Menino tried to accommodate union resistance to charters by experimenting with unionized "pilot" schools that allow limited managerial flexibility in making personnel and budget decisions. But those experiments are failing to improve education and unions remain opposed to charters.

"The straw that broke the camel's back," Mr. Merino told me, came when a principal of one of the struggling school accepted a grant from ExxonMobil to give teachers small bonuses when their students excelled. The unions "took us to arbitration," Mr. Menino said, essentially killing the bonuses. So for good measure the mayor included a call for merit pay in his blockbuster school-reform speech. "Every time we try to do a reform they stop it."

Vestiges of Mr. Menino's anticharter past and his cautious political instincts remain. He wants to convert 51 failing public schools to "in-district" charters under the control of the city. Initially these schools will be nonunion, but unions may be able to organize their teachers down the road. Still, if results don't improve or the unions block his plan, Mr. Menino vows to lobby for lifting the state's restrictive cap on the number of "pure" charter schools. "Charters are a vehicle to get the reforms we need," he says.

Resistance in the state legislature to charter expansion is already wearing out the patience of even sober civic leaders like Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a large private philanthropy. Creating more charters "couldn't be a more urgent matter," he told a legislative committee recently, adding that further delay "borders on criminal."

The Boston Foundation recently released a study noting that students admitted to charter schools were doing much better than the children they left behind in regular public schools, and better than students in those pilot schools that the mayor supported. The report found, for example, that students in pilot schools did not improve above regular public school students in eighth grade math. Charter-school children vastly improved their scores.

With Mr. Menino now pressing for more charters, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick could soon be under tremendous pressure to do more than pay lip service to the idea. The governor has so far professed support for charters, then supported policies that hamstrung them. For example, he has called for easing caps on charter schools -- but only in the worst-performing districts and with restrictions that force them to toss aside the lottery system they use to select students and instead adopt quotas for special education and English-as-a-second-language students.

It's unclear if such charter policies will meet Mr. Duncan's federal-funding smell test. It definitely doesn't satisfy Ms. Brown of Building Excellent Schools. "He cannot keep kicking popular opinion and political sanity aside," she says.

For Mr. Patrick, whose poll ratings are sagging low enough for some to wonder if he can win re-election in 2010, all of this has to be worrisome. The pro-charter rhetoric from Mr. Menino -- who is usually ranked alongside Sen. Edward Kennedy as the state's most popular politician -- is a flashing warning light. He can continue to cave into the teacher unions. Or he can get in line with demands of the Obama administration and offer unqualified support for charter schools.

Mr. Menino, for one, is already well down that path. He says that his own children are eyeing Boston charter schools for two of his grandchildren next fall.


Racist Academic Liberals

Ward Connerly, former University of California Regent, has an article, "Study, Study, Study -- A Bad Career Move" in the June 2, 2009 edition of Minding the Campus ( that should raise any decent American's level of disgust for what's routinely practiced at most of our universities. Mr. Connerly tells of a conversation he had with a high-ranking UC administrator about a proposal that the administrator was developing to increase campus diversity. Connerly asked the administrator why he considered it important to tinker with admissions instead of just letting the chips fall where they may. His response was that that unless the university took steps to "guide" admissions decisions, the University of California campuses would be dominated by Asians. When Connerly asked, "What would be wrong with that?", the UC administrator told him that Asians are "too dull -- they study, study, study." Then he said to Connerly, "If you ever say I said this, I will have to deny it." Connerly did not reveal the administrator's name. It would not have done any good because it's part of a diversity vision shared by most college administrators.

With the enactment of California's Proposition 209 in 1996, outlawing racial discrimination in college admissions, Asian enrollment at UC campuses has skyrocketed. UC Berkeley student body is 42 percent Asian students; UC Irvine 55 percent; UC Riverside 43 percent; and UCLA 38 percent. Asian student enrollment on all nine UC campuses is over 40 percent. That's in a state where the Asian population is about 13 percent. When there are policies that emphasize and reward academic achievement, Asians excel. College officials and others who are proponents of "diversity" and equal representation find that outcome offensive.

To deal with the Asian "menace," the UC Regents have proposed, starting in 2010, that no longer will the top 12.5 percent of students based on statewide performance be automatically admitted. Students won't have to take SAT subject matter tests. Grades and test scores will no longer weigh so heavily in admission decisions. This is simply gross racial discrimination against those "dull" Asian students who "study, study, study" in favor of "interesting" black, white and Hispanic students who don't "study, study, study."

This is truly evil and would be readily condemned as such if applied to other areas lacking in diversity. With blacks making up about 80 percent of professional basketball players, there is little or no diversity in professional basketball. Even at college-level basketball, it is not at all unusual to watch two teams playing and there not being a single white player on the court, much less a Chinese or Japanese player. I can think of several rule changes that might increase racial diversity in professional and college basketball. How about eliminating slam dunks and disallowing three-point shots? Restrict dribbling? Lower the basket's height? These and other rule changes would take away the "unfair" advantage that black players appear to have and create greater basketball diversity. But wouldn't diversity so achieved be despicable? If you answer yes, why would it be any less so when it's used to fulfill somebody's vision of college diversity?

Ward Connerly ends his article saying, "There is one truth that is universally applicable in the era of 'diversity,' especially in American universities: an absolute unwillingness to accept the verdict of colorblind policies." Hypocrisy is part and parcel of the liberal academic elite. But the American people, who fund universities either as parents, donors or taxpayers, should not accept this evilness and there's a good way to stop it -- cut off the funding to racially discriminating colleges and universities.



Rita said...

I am a caucasian college graduate of UC San Diego, and I wholeheartedly agree that a student's race should not be taken into account during admissions. That said, I also believe that UC no longer places the same importance on test scores as they used to because the tests have been shown to be a poor indicator of academic success in college - not because they are trying to make it easier for non-Asian minorities to get accepted.

Robert said...

As a graduate of UCLA, I would rather see the UC system retain its distinction of excellence, with whatever diversity the campuses get from picking among the best, than have the system gain a reputation of being a bunch of "party" schools by deliberately discriminating against those who "study, study, study".