Coming to a state near you

.Disclaimer: This is not an anti-charter school piece. In my work in the NJ Department of Education and as a consultant for the International Center for Leadership In Education, I have seen both exemplary and horrible charter schools. In the Department of Education my division approved more than a few and closed several. This is about our need as educators to be able to discuss with parents, friends, and colleagues the ways in which new policies can advance or stifle learning opportunities for our children.

For a while now I’ve been following the work of Jan Resseger and have referred to her blog several times here. Jan is a tireless defender of the concept of free public education as the backbone of our democracy and the right of every child to have equitable access to high quality learning opportunities. She has written extensively on the charter school funding issues in her home state of Ohio and, most recently, on the impact of the expansion of privatized, for profit charters in Michigan.

Why should you care about this?

This heavily subsidized agenda is coming to your state, to your town. We’ve seen this movie before. We’ve lived through at least 3 decades of “school reform” driven by the belief that ever more rigorous standards and an increasing reliance on large-scale assessment would be the solution to unsatisfactory student achievement. After all, who would ever argue for lower standards (excuse me for stealing a thought from Ken Robinson)? But did any of us foresee that these reform efforts would develop into 3 decades of No Child Left Behind, the Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act?

And here we are again faced with the next great idea… expansion of charter schools, expanded vouchers programs, and re-toolrd versions of school choice. After all, who would argue that all kids shouldn’t have access to a quality school? But this is not about the validity of an idea.  Like school reform, it’s about the implementation.  It’s about what this idea has that looked like in those states that have been at the forefront of the school choice, charter schools, vouchers, and the privatization movement?

I suspect that many of us have been following the unfolding story of the ways in which our government may be changed as a consequence of the election. One of the more troubling proposed appointments has been that for the position of Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

I first encountered the DeVos family in Jane Mayer’s fascinating book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”. Mayer is an award winning investigative journalist and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1995. In her book, she describes and documents the ways in which billionaire philanthropists have used their fortunes to advance (aided significantly by the Citizens United decision) their own radically conservative, and often self-serving, agendas. While DeVos has no experience that involves working in public schools, she has extensive experience in promoting the expansion of privatized, for-profit charter schools, vouchers, school choice, and the advance of her very conservative Christian beliefs in publicly funded schools. If you’d like additional background on Betsy DeVos, I recommend a recent New Yorker article by Mayer.


As I have written previously, I believe that this is a time when we, as educators, must become more actively involved in what the future of learning looks like for our children. Most of us can relate stories of having been called upon to explain and/or defend either our profession or the direction of schooling. I write this in the belief that we must become informed and be able to serve as sources of objective and accurate information for our parents, for our community members, and our colleagues. To this end, I urge you to read Jan’s two-part blog on the history and implications of the DeVos appointment. You can read the first piece here and the second piece here. Jan also includes links to a number of her previous pieces that provide fascinating detail about the underbelly of the for-profit charter school business.


I offer the comment section of this blog as a starting point for an exchange of questions and thoughts. I encourage you to take the time to begin a conversation with me, but more importantly, with your fellow educators.


13 thoughts on “Coming to a state near you

      • I believe that Ms.DeVos (IF she is confirmed) will institute several changes. First, I believe she will push for school choice. She will push for giving parents the power to withdraw their children, from failing public (government) schools, and enroll these children in alternative schools. These alternatives will be public, private, parochial, and home-schools. School vouchers, and educational savings accounts, will “break the back” of the government/public school monopoly.

        Now, children are assigned to a government school, based on their zip code. If parents do not like the government school, then they have few options:

        1-Withdraw the child, and place the child in a private/parochial school, but continue to pay the taxes to support the school that they do not use.

        2-Home school the child, and continue to pay taxes for the school they do not use.

        3-Move to a different school district, and hope that the new government school is better than the old one.

        4-“Suck it up” and continue to send the child to the government school that is not providing an adequate education.

        I also hope that our nation will take a long hard look, at the entire educational program of our nation. Currently (2015 data from OECD) the USA is spending 6.4 percent of our GDP on education. We need to examine and audit the books. We need an accounting of how we are spending this money, and what value we are receiving.

        We need to examine K-12 education, and see how it can be improved, altered, modified, to keep pace with the economic needs of the 21st century. We all have to live with the product of our educational system.

        We need to have alternate certification for teachers. I am an engineer, but I cannot teach electronics in a public school in Virginia. Bill Gates cannot teach computer programming. Albert Einstein cannot teach physics. I speak French and German (I lived in France for one year, and Germany for two years, and I was a technical translator for the US Air Force). I cannot teach German in a public school. States should be able to conduct “boot camps”, where scientists and engineers can obtain the necessary training to conduct a high-school class, and how to complete the required government paperwork.

        We need to break the backs of the AFT/NEA, and enable qualified people to teach in America’s schools, without the interference or approval of any third party.

        We need to improve and expand vocational/technical education. Not all students have the aptitude or intelligence to cope with college. We will need air conditioning technicians, and automobile mechanics, and jet-engine mechanics. We need to observe and emulate some of the vo-tech programs used in other nations. Germany has a vibrant public/private apprenticeship program, that places vo-tech students in apprentice programs.

        We need to expand university education in STEM programs. (I am a telecommunications engineer, so I feel very strongly about this). We need to invest more in educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, computer programmers, robotic engineers, and all of the high-tech specialties, that will enable the USA to compete with other nations, in the 21st century.

        We need to diminish the number of students who are spending many thousands of dollars (often borrowed) to obtain a liberal-arts education, that will not garner them employment. Do we really need so many people with degrees in History, Italian Literature, and recreation?

        Lastly, we need to abolish the federal Department of Education in its entirety. There is no specific authority delegated to the federal government, to have any involvement in education at all. Educational policy and education should be entirely a state/county/municipal function. Some poorer states could be considered for block grants, if their tax base is inadequate to support a modern educational program.

        These are some, not all, of the changes I would like to see in education in the USA. I hope that Ms. DeVos can get on it immediately.

        I should think that these changes should be enough to get started on.


      • Thank you for your reply. It’s obvious that you have spent considerable time reflecting on this and have identified a number of critical needs. In one of my earlier posts, I reflected on the thinking of Russell Ackoff who drew from the work of Peter Drucker when he posited that there is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. I was reminded of that when I read your reply.
        You share an interesting mix of problems – i.e., the need for better vocational training, better options for parents trapped in failing schools by accident of zip code, cost of education (both K-12 and higher ed), etc. and solutions – i.e., expanded school choice, vouchers, breaking union power, eliminating the fed department of education, etc.
        I find more resonance with the problems you have identified than with your proposed solutions, as I see the solutions as attempts to do the wring thing (schooling as it has evolved and as we have experienced it) better.
        Could you consider that your analysis of the problem might come closest to the ”right thing” when you suggest that there is a need for us as a nation to rethink how we cause learning to occur, regardless of location? Could you see such a “rethinking” process beginning locally with an analysis of where our interests/hopes for the results of education intersect?
        Based on your obvious interests and concerns, here are several resources you might enjoy:
        Big Picture Schools:
        Cristo Rey Schools:


      • Thanks for taking the time to read my ideas. I agree, that there are many things in our national educational situation that could stand improving. And I thoroughly agree, that there are many ways to accomplish some of these goals. Education is “dynamic”, the needs change, and the path to obtaining goals will change.

        Of course, I would love to see Q there is a need for us as a nation to rethink how we cause learning to occur, regardless of location? END Q.

        That is the beauty of the internet (and other high-tech innovations). I would love to more students in rural areas to be exposed to the same learning opportunities as children in urban settings.

        And, with block grants, school systems in less-affluent locations, could have the same financial resources, as systems in the richer zip codes.

        And I would like to see more residential prep schools. like the Illinois Math and Science Academy (see ). We can all agree, that schools in less-affluent areas, and rural areas, do not have the staff or resources to help gifted/talented children reach potential. Residence prep schools for gifted/talented, is part of the answer.

        And I would love to see Q Could you see such a “rethinking” process beginning locally with an analysis of where our interests/hopes for the results of education intersect? END Q

        Rethinking, top to bottom would be great. My opinion is, that education thinking in this nation, is “ossified”. There are too many teachers, administrators, and politicians, who are not interested in innovation. Their minds are not only closed, they have been sealed shut with epoxy glue.

        I am NOT opposed to anything that works. I am an engineer, not an educator, so I have no background in theory of education. And I have nothing against public schools, I went to public schools.


      • Some more changes: I would like to see more “civics” taught at the secondary level. Students must have an understanding of the US Constitution, and our democratic system. Towards that noble goal, Actor Richard Dreyfuss has started the “Dreyfuss initiative” see

        Young people have an enormous stake in the governance of our nation. Sadly, most kids have no understanding of our systems of government.

        AND: I would like to see more NGO’s partnering with education to deliver a higher quality of education. Many non-profits would be delighted to contribute time, resources, speakers, etc. If only they were asked.

        One of my favorite NGOs which assists children in public schools, is the Masonic Angel Fund. We work with teachers, to locate and assist children who lack basic necessities like winter coats, and other articles of clothing and food. We have the
        Beehive Food (NOT affiliated with the latter-day saints)


        and the “Laptops for Kidz”(sic). We locate used and non-functioning computers, and donate them to children who cannot afford a computer.

        This is an exciting time, to be involved in education. What do you think?


      • incredibly exciting and challenging time.

        I had to smile at your description of the “Laptops for Kdz” program . I assume that you didn’t mean that the program provides non-functioning computers to kids…

        We may have differing views of “civics”. I suspect I’m not alone in thinking there are at least two “civics” – One might be termed the “official truth civics” which is the theoretical civics, based on the constitution and the American Dream and the “on the ground truth civics” which is how the system actually works, with gerrymandered voting districts, post Citizen United funding/lobbying practices, etc. I might be praised for teaching one and fired for teaching the other. Bottom line, however, is that we agree that our students are woefully unaware of how the system should or does work.

        Since I’m unaware of your location, I’m uncertain if the following might be feasible… Have you considered becoming involved in the school governance process to provide a legitimate platform for the beliefs you hold?


  1. The already underfunded public schools in America will further be drained for the benefit of the wealthy while we continue to watch America’s wealth and the power it brings continue to shift to the top 1% of the population. The opportunities my parents were given in public school allowed them to go to college and thrive in the strong middle class economy that we once enjoyed as Americans. Our children’s America will be much more challenging…stable income opportunities, debt, cost of living, quality and affordable healthcare, saving for a financially secure retirement.


  2. Dear Richard, I thought I would get a reaction about the “Laptops for Kidz” program. The program get old non-functioning computers, and then cannibalizes them for parts, to patch together a functioning machine. I think this is a terrific partnership between a NGO and public education.

    The definition of “civics” is elastic, to be sure! I met Richard Dreyfuss in WashDC, when he presented the Initiative. He is the only celebrity I ever heard of who is getting involved in education issues.

    I live in Alexandria VA (Metro WashDC). I would love to get more directly involved in school governance. It seems like no one cares what a 62-year old non-parent has to say. I do not have any “skin in the game”, I am just an observer.

    The public schools in Fairfax County are uniformly excellent. I would be proud to send my child to one of them. Across the river in WashDC, things are not so rosy. Only 79% of school age children even attend these wretched schools. This is the lowest school-utilization rate in the country!

    BTW- Where do you live? Maybe we can grab a cup of coffee sometime.

    Charles E. Martin


  3. School choice is advancing here in Virginia. Sadly, the 2016 session passed the state assembly, but the governor vetoed the legislation. School choice legislation will return to the assembly, and may make it into law at the next session.

    I would hesitate to make a blanket statement, that school choice (vouchers/savings accounts) are a very bad idea. What is possibly wrong with empowering parents to have more control over their education spending? If the public schools in a certain area are delivering, and parents are satisfied, then the public school has nothing to fear from school choice.

    Here is the governor’s veto message:

    Q Pursuant to Article V, Section 6, of the Constitution of Virginia, I veto House Bill 389, which would remove state funds from our public school systems and redirect those funds to Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts to pay for educational services outside the public school system.

    First and foremost, there are significant constitutional concerns with this legislation. The approved expenses as outlined in the bill include tuition at private sectarian institutions, bringing the legislation into direct conflict with Article VIII, Section 10, of the Virginia Constitution, which authorizes the use of public funds only for public and nonsectarian private schools.

    While the bill would divert much-needed resources away from public schools, operating costs would not be significantly lowered due to the continued need for teachers, buses, and other administrative supports upon which public school students rely. Additionally, the funds withdrawn from the public system bear no relationship to the needs of the particular student or the cost of the additional support services he or she would require, because the amount received will vary based on the local composite index of the home division.

    This bill raises constitutional questions, diverts funds from public schools, and creates an unfair system. Our goal is to support and improve public education across the Commonwealth for all students, not to codify inequality.

    Accordingly, I veto this bill. END Q (from the Virginia Legislative Information System)

    I believe the governor is dead wrong on several points. First, whose money is being diverted? Parents (and other citizens) who pay the taxes. The money belongs to the taxpayers, not the school systems.

    And there are NO constitutional issues at all. The Supreme Court solved the issue in 2002, with Zelman V. Simmons-Harris. Educational savings accounts, empower parents to save for educational costs, and have the choice of directing the expenditures to paying tuition to religiously-affiliated schools. See ACSTO v. Winn 2010.

    Virginia has educational savings accounts for college educational costs (They are called “529 plans”). money saved in these plans may be used at religiously-affiliated institutions of higher learning. No one objects to the 529 plans, even though the money goes to religiously-affiliated school tuition (and related costs). Money that would have gone to public institutions (like Virginia Commonwealth), goes to religiously-affiliated schools. No one ever raises a constitutional question.

    Of course, directing money towards parents savings accounts, and away from failing public schools, will result in less money going to the public schools, which children would leave. No dispute. Just like when a child moves out of the school district. So what?

    However, the governor is wrong, when he claims that operating costs, at the lower-populated public schools would not be significantly lowered. When the students leave, the workforce (teachers and administrators) will have to be down-sized. Personnel costs would decline, while “sunk costs” (buildings, warehouses,etc) would continue. The lower-attended public schools would have to cut costs, by selling off these unused assets.

    The governor is way off about the costs. The costs of the saving accounts can be calculated to reflect the per-pupil costs, already being spent at the failing schools. Of course, the amount would vary. Per-pupil expenditures are higher in Fairfax county (Metro DC), that in Accomack County (rural).

    The governor is off in his summary. The constitutional issues have been solved by the Supreme Court. Money would be diverted from public school spending, but money would NOT be diverted from publicly-supported education. This is what economists call a “zero-sum game”. The per-pupil expenditures would remain unchanged. Only where the money is spent, and who controls the money would be changed.

    Giving parents more control over their education dollars, is inherently fair. No unfair system would be created.

    There is already an unfair and unequal system here in Virginia. The rich have choice. Rich people can pay for a school system that they do not use, and then pay tuition to a private/parochial school that they do use. Lower-income parents are trapped into paying for a system of public schools. Some are delighted with the public schools, some are not happy. Don’t these parents deserve the same right of free choice as the rich?


  4. Charles.

    Please excuse the out of order response; however, I revisited you initial explanation of changes you would like to see and realized that while I had offered a response, I did not share information, which might clarify what appear to be misconceptions included in your comment.

    Re: assertions that there are no options for those with highly developed skills to serve as teachers without having completed a traditional teacher preparation program. I can speak from personal experience during my time at the NJ Department of Education where my division was responsible for the development and oversight of alternate route programs (pathways for those not possessing the standard credentials) for meeting the NJ certification requirements.

    Additionally, a quick search of the Virginia’s Department of Education website yielded information for completion of what they refer to as “career switcher” opportunities. While these opportunities may not offer the blanket acceptance that you desire, it would be incorrect to assert that there are no such options for professionals in other fields to share their expertise as teachers.
    Re: Vocational education and the suggestion that we emulate the system used in Germany. I, too, lived in Germany while teaching at a German school. More recently, I had the opportunity to visit a number of vocational programs in Germany, post-reunification. They are, indeed, excellent. What is missing from your comment, however, is the acknowledgement of the many exceptional vocational programs that exists here in the US.

    Actually, it would serve us well if we chose to replicate programs that exist here in the US. This direction has suffered as a result of the school reform initiative that was based on a narrow view of college for all. Currently, there are a number of states that offer exceptional opportunities for career development, in high school vocation schools/programs, theme oriented technical academies within traditional schools, community college programs, etc.

    Oddly enough, the schools with the most questionable track record of cost vs. benefit are those operated by private business (see recent articles re: the reports of high cost over-promise, under-deliver schools that have been closed for the predatory manipulation of student loans).

    Re: The benefits of school choice. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to check out the links to the work of Jan Resseger that I included in the post. Her research and the work of others that she cites focus important attention on the choice experience in Detroit, which seems to serve as the example of school choice on the scale that you appear to suggest. The research is in stark contrast to the picture you paint. This may, indeed, be the result of poor implementation; however, if we look at the experience scientifically as a test of a hypothesis, it tells a very cautionary tale.



  5. Thanks for your response. Some (NOT ALL) states have alternate certification programs for professionals in other fields, to teach in public schools. Virginia has provisions for people in SOME fields to get alternate certification. Generally, the teachers unions fight these programs, sadly. States that do not have alternate certification, should open up to the idea.

    There are many excellent vo-tech programs in some states. If a state has a program, to get non-college people into the technical fields, then great. But, we should not be too proud to emulate programs from other nations. I would love to see a public-private partnership, that would get young people into apprenticeship programs. I participated in a “cooperative learning” experience myself. I was in engineering school, and I served a summer internship as the technical editor for a telecommunications journal. I made $5(five) dollars an hour, but I got great training in technical editing and publishing. It was my first break in the telecommunications field, and I will always be grateful to the journal. I am somewhat of an oddity. I am an engineer, who can write a five-word declarative sentence!

    I have been a huge fan of school choice for many years. I do not believe it to be a panacea. But I am optimistic, that school choice can be the catalyst, that will spur a robust competition in K-12 education. We have , in the USA, a “mix” of public/private/parochial education at the university level. Students get federal money (Pell Grants, GI Bill,etc) and go to religiously-affiliated schools like Notre Dame, and there is no constitutional objection.

    I believe that the USA can have a “mix” of public/private/parochial education, at the K-12 level. I believe that parents, when so empowered, can make the decisions that are in their best interests.


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