Thursday, January 24, 2013

Let's Play Whack-a-Mole...And WIN!


A lot has been coming at us at one time from both the state house and the senate.  Many of my friends are not sure whom to write, what to write, etc. I thought I would clarify it (such that I know and given that things keep changing!) on this post.

The reason so many of these types of bills appear all at once is quite simple.  It is literally a page out of the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) playbook for how to "reform" schools.  :

Across the country for the past two decades, education reform efforts have popped up in legislatures at different times in different places. As a result, teachers’ unions have been playing something akin to “whack-a-mole”—you know the game—striking down as many education reform efforts as possible. Many times, the unions successfully “whack” the “mole,” i.e., the reform legislation. Sometimes, however, they miss. If all the moles pop up at once, there is no way the person with the mallet can get them all. Introduce comprehensive reform packages. (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 108)

If you don't know about ALEC, you really ought to.  And you should spread the information as far and as wide as possible.  Here in Indiana they have been very busy and very successful.  The majority of our recent changes (especially from the blitz of 2011 which saw the loss of collective bargaining and all kinds of rights for teachers, the expansion of vouchers, charters and the use of tests to beat up public schools and portray them as failures) have been legislation written by ALEC.  ALEC's goal is to privatize public education.  They are all about free markets and see a pot of gold where our children's education is concerned. Former state superintendent Tony Bennett was the poster child for the corporate reform and it was to the shock and horror of corporate reformers across the nation that he lost to Glenda Ritz, a master teacher no less!

Now former state chairman of ALEC, Rep. Bob Behning, has introduced two bills which would make Ritz virtually powerless over the direction of public education.  For a description of them and of HB 1251 (Huston-another power grab) , read the post on this blog just before this one.

Here is a brief how-to for composing your response to these particular bills:

Dear Rep. ---,

I am ----. (If you are a constituent, by all means say so! IF youare not, call yourself a concerned parent, citizen, and keep 'em guessing).

Identify the bill/s you object to (in this case, it is okay to name all three of the power grabs: HB1251, HB1309, and HB1342. They are all aimed at taking away Ritz's authority and ability to direct education).

Briefly tell him/her WHY you voted for Glenda Ritz and what your hopes for her and the direction of education are.

Thank him/her for his/her time and attention.



 I wrote to chairman Behning myself last night.  Here is my letter:

Dear Rep. Behning,

I am writing to you because I am greatly concerned about a number of house bills that have come to my attention.  I know that you are intimately familiar with them as you have authored (?) or sponsored two of them: HB1309 and HB1342.  House Bill 1251 is also of great concern to me; allow me to explain why.  

I recognize that you invested both time and maybe even money in the movement to privatize education.  I see from your record that you are a strong member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and that you were state chairman of ALEC for 8 years.  It doesn't come as a surprise to me as I've noticed that the policies you follow in education align themselves completely with ALEC's vision of a system of education in which competition is the driving force and free markets reign supreme.  I contemplate whether you truly believe this is best for children or whether you are only concerned with the few who will benefit.  Perhaps you are discovering that this is a huge money-maker.  You see, I've become cynical in recent years and you'll have to forgive me for that.  I don't believe that schools run as businesses will ever put children first.  It is antithetical to their purpose:  a business is for profit, schools are a service for children.

As you know, ALEC and the corporations backing your organization have received a lot of press this past year.  The shooting of Trayvon Martin exposed the many ways that ALEC can impose business interests and control aspects of our democracy at the peril of our citizens.  The very act of wooing legislators, giving them model legislation and having this pass as law, is undemocratic in itself.  What happened to representation of your constituency?  And this brings me to my main point.

Glenda Ritz won.  She won fair and square and against all the odds reflected in campaign finance studies (he who has the biggest coffers wins). She ran on a platform dedicated to education and she received even more votes than Governor Pence.  That speaks volumes to her support.  I would think that with this strong backing, your efforts to diminish her power and marginalize her position would be a very risky venture for you.  When voters are made aware that you are trying to create a state school board made up of your own party (no longer requiring that there be no more than 6 of a party) and made up of non-educators (no longer requiring that there be employees of schools with teaching licenses) --HB1251--, I think that they will be very unhappy with you as their representative.  Furthermore, when they discover that HB1309 creates a new position (vice chairman) for the board who would act in Ritz's stead and have an unusual amount of power over agendas, meetings,etc (HB1309) as well as ensuring a "majority" at the Education Roundtable (all appointed by the governor), I think that your constituents will stop and wonder why you would blatantly disregard their will/votes.

ALEC believes that corporations are people who can influence legislators to pass laws that benefit them.  But I think most of America's citizens believe that legislators should represent the people who voted for them.  This is, after all, the idea of a democracy.  I hope that if you believe in our country and a democracy, that you will also believe in Indiana's constitution which gives every child a right to a free public education or "common school." If you can't get behind a system of public education, I would hope that you would get behind the idea that you are elected to represent the people.  In this case, the people overwhelmingly voted for Glenda Ritz.  Allow her to do her job. 

Thanks for your time.  

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer

And here are more sample letters from friends:

Subject: HB1251 and HB1309

Representative Behning:

I read with dismay in the Ft. Wayne Journal that you have sponsored the two bills referenced above. I really must ask what has driven you to the reform groups intent on dismantling our public education system? I honestly wonder if you had a bad experience in school and that you have decided that teachers are the enemy and need to be punished?

Your bills remove teachers -- the professionals-- from the State Board of Education. Why? Would you remove medical doctors from similar boards? Pharmacists from their boards? Your point seems to be that teachers and administrators are not relevant to the issues and concerns of public education and should not be represented. That is so wrong. It implies that those non-educator board members have more expertise and experience than those who work directly within the schools and that they have the wisdom and ability to make better educational decisions affecting all of our children. It sort of like anyone who went to public school knows how to solve its problems just because they attended.

HB1309 can only be construed as a bald attempt to limit the authority of the new Superintendent of Public Instruction. I don't believe that would have happened had Tony Bennett been re-elected. In the face of Glenda Ritz' overwhelming vote total, you must agree that Hoosiers decided that Bennett's agenda, so tied to the private for-profit sector, was not what was wanted. More than teachers voted to remove him. Your bill seems to reflect the desire to undermine our votes by punishing Supt. Ritz. Again, why would you do that for any other reason than a political pay-back?

I wish you would stop and consider the image you present to educators in particular by fronting for the reformists who have branded our schools and teachers as failures and stand ready to remedy all perceived faults -- for a price. Your bills diminish your public education system.

Mike Walsh, Retired teacher and administrator

And from a parent:

Dear members of the Indiana house of representatives,

I am a stay-at-home parent of three kids. The oldest is thriving in our local public school and the younger two will enter it soon. Over the past several years, I have been distressed to see how the need to maximize scores on the high-stakes ISTEP test was dictating how decisions were made in my school district.  I do not think that strategies for maximizing scores on a bubble-sheet test are the same thing as a good education. Still, I see that my district administrators are caught in a bind. I hold my legislature responsible. It pains me that the state, which should be using our tax dollars to support our public schools, has instead created a culture of fear and top-down intimidation in the name of "accountability."

Like 1.3 million other Hoosiers, I voted for Glenda Ritz. Now I learn that legislators Behning and Huston have introduced several bills to undermine, even eviscerate, her authority, and to make the oversight of education a job for political hacks. House Bill 1251 removes the requirement that at least four members of the state board of education be actively employed in schools in Indiana and hold a teaching license.  It removes the requirement that no more than 6 members of the board be of the same political party. House Bill 1309 requires the state board to elect a vice-chairman who would have the power to fulfill all the state superintendent's functions; it also would create a third co-chair, appointed by the governor, to the Educational Roundtable, giving the governor total power to make administrative decisions. House Bill 1342 removes oversight of the school voucher program from the Department of Education.

This multi-pronged, blatant power grab--going directly against the clearly expressed will of Indiana voters--should be viewed as an embarrassment to the Republican party. As a parent, I do not want ideologues shaping my children's schools. I urge you to defeat these bills. They are an affront to democracy in Indiana.

Jenny Robinson

Let's get started on this letter-writing and phone calling campaign.  We can't allow these legislators to override our votes nor our voices! Write your letters, make your phone calls. Send it to the papers.  Share with friends!  Please get those MOLES!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention

I hope you are outraged.

When Glenda Ritz won the election last November, the joy in schools and across communities, among teachers, parents, and grandparents who wrote letters, made phone calls and stood at polls was pervasive.  The shock and awe of the politicians, corporate leaders, reformers (or "deformers" as we like to call them), the governor, and Bennett himself... was deeply satisfying to those of us who wanted this victory with all of our beings.  It was compared to David and Goliath.  Bennett had outspent Ritz 5 to 1.  It was a statistically shocking defeat.  It showed that sometimes elections can't be bought.  Sometimes the people's will prevails and democracy works.

The tone among my teacher friends before the election was one of oppression.  They listened to me go off about Bennett with mostly silence, sometimes smiling knowingly (as if I didn't know the HALF of what was happening in these classrooms as a result of Bennett's reforms) and sometimes looking nervous, as if they might be found out for their dissent.  It was like living in a tyrannical state with fear and stress as a second skin.

During Tony Bennett's term, funding was slashed for our public schools.  Money left the public schools' pot and went over to private schools and home schools through vouchers and tax credits.  Teachers lost their collective voice, their bargaining power to advocate for the conditions of the classroom in which children learn.  Standardized tests were used to label children, teachers and schools; indeed, whole communities were labeled, as "failures" and the pressure was rising.  Teachers were portrayed as union thugs and defenders of a status quo which was harmful to children.  Fear of failure was epidemic.    And then Glenda Ritz was elected.

Someone recently posted on Facebook that the new D.O.E. website was up and running. The theme across its face is : "Imagining the possibilities.Making them happen."  The comments from people of how great it was to see this, how cheerful its face is now, how anyone can set up an appointment online to meet with Ritz, reminded me of the overthrow of Baby Doc in the early 90s in Haiti.  Baby Doc was a horrible dictator. When Jean Bertrand Aristide came to power, the very first democratically elected president of Haiti, he opened the doors to the president's house and invited all the people to come to an open house, to celebrate a budding democracy and a representative for the people and by the people.  It might be a dramatic analogy, but I really feel it and I don't think I am alone.  Today is our people's open house.  Today Glenda Ritz will host an inauguration in the Statehouse with a reception/open house at the D.O.E. to follow.  Today we celebrate an expert teacher who will be a voice for all Indiana teachers and children.


Tyrants don't go away quietly.  The political machine that supports and backs them in this case remains in our statehouse.  Representative Behning, a great champion of Tony Bennett and his agenda (which, incidentally is ALEC's agenda, a blatant desire to privatize public education), has a number of house bills in line which would effectively silence the voice of Glenda Ritz and take away her power to affect change.

House Bill 1251 (Huston?):   Removes the requirement that at least four members of the state board of education be actively employed in schools in Indiana and hold a teaching license.  Also removes the requirement that no more than 6 members of the board be of the same political party.

No educational experience necessary to make enormous decisions regarding the issues facing education? Seriously? This is how we respect all educators and validate that they are incapable of running schools? And let's go ahead and have a supermajority or monopoly of one party on the board as well? No diplomacy, no back and forth? No representation for all?

House Bill 1309 (Behning):  Requires the state board to elect a vice-chairman who would have the power to:   (1) preside over meetings in the absence of the state superintendent ... and
       (2) call meetings, set and amend agendas, arrange for witnesses, and carry out other administrative     functions related to the state board.  BUT THAT'S NOT ALL:
This bill also makes the change that, instead of the governor and state superintendent being co-chairs of the Educational Roundtable as they are now,  the Commissioner for Higher Education (yes, appointed by the governor) would be made a third co-chair of the Roundtable AND  then the bill would allow for a majority of co-chairs to "carry out administrative functions related to the meetings".

Nothing like creating your own majority, marginalizing and silencing dissenting points of view, to enact your will and abuse power.  Sound like a tyranny to you?

House Bill 1342 (Behning):  Removes oversight of the school voucher program from the superintendent's office.  Instead, it creates a new department, the "Office of Accountability and Innovation", which would operate OUTSIDE OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION and would do two things:
(1) "establish and maintain a longitudinal data system that contains record level educational and workforce data from all levels of education and the state's workforce."  And: (2) administer the choice scholarship program..  This goes on to require data, data, data from the D.O.E. to prove, I am assuming, educational success to this new office of "Accountability".  IF there is one trigger word to upset and frustrate parents and teachers, it has to be "accountability" tied with "data."  From the "deformers" viewpoint, accountability only means testing, testing, and more testing.  Tie everything to a test.  And if there is ONE thing that parents and teachers understand, it is that our children are not test scores.  They are not numbers and they are not data.

Glenda Ritz's victory was a victory for our children.  She clearly spoke to the many concerns of voters across our state and gave us hope for the future; a future where children will be learning in caring, developmentally appropriate environments, taught by teachers who are respected and given the freedom to teach.  Hopes for a state where help is on the way to schools who are struggling, instead of public humiliation, labeling, and takeovers.  But it is not a given.

Write to your legislators.  Call them.  Tell all of your friends and family to do the same.  Write letters to the editor.  The power grabs outlined above are outrageous.  Use your outrage to act.  Democracy, as I've blogged before, is not a spectator sport.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Honor Our Votes for Glenda Ritz

This week I closed down the petition on ("Governor Daniels, Governor-elect Pence, the Indiana state legislature:  Honor our 1,300,000 votes for Glenda Ritz"). Over 10, 275 people signed their names and commented on our petition since November.  Glenda Ritz will take her position as our new state superintendent in just a few days and it is time for us to turn our energies toward supporting her and supporting our public schools with a new administration and new governor at the helm.

The legacy of Tony Bennett and Mitch Daniels will be difficult to undo or even buffer our kids and teachers from.  There has been so much damage and structural change.  But we must try.

Politicians, state board members, and corporate reformers across the country have tried to manipulate the meaning and intentions of our votes for Glenda Ritz. They claimed that we were voting against Tony Bennett's personal style, that those evil teacher unions successfully organized against Bennett to salvage their "status quo" (so cliche! so dishonest!), that teachers used schools and computers illegally as campaign headquarters for Ritz, etc.  I guess that is the best they can do to try to salvage their egos and momentum.  But it is a feeble attempt to cover up the truth: over 1,300,000 people were eager and vehement in their desire for change in direction in education. A vote for change in one's state legislator, for example, could reflect many different issues on the part of a voter, but the vote for state superintendent of public instruction reflects the direction of education. Period.  The spin by corporate reformers is just pathetic.

The particular motivations for voting for Ritz were individual, of course.  For those of us with children (I have four) in the schools, we could feel the intensity and stress emanating from both our kids and our kids' teachers.  I know parents whose children were crying and throwing up over their fears around standardized testing.  The stakes are now so high: will you pass on to the next grade? Will your school get a failing grade and be taken over or lose funding? Will your teacher be declared "ineffective" and lose her job?

We want our kids to have an intrinsic desire to learn, to find their passions and to do hands-on experiments.  But the pressure on schools to perform on tests results in a narrowing of curriculum instead;  fill-in-the-bubble sheets, constant assessment of language arts and computer programs that develop good "test taking" skills predominate the school experience.  My 8 year-old comes home every week with fill-in-the-bubble worksheets that my 18 year-old never had.  I love my son's teacher and respect her tremendously.  The fact that my child still has the opportunity to do projects and play outside is a credit to her integrity and ingenuity as a professional, as well as the fact that our school has the leeway of being an "A"and "four-star" school, reducing some (not all) of the pressure to perform on tests.

This labeling of schools through an A-F grading system is another reason we voted out Bennett.  Some communities have only one high school in their towns.  To brand their school with a "D" is to brand the entire community as sub-par.  The school is the place where people gather to watch sports, to see theater programs; it is the proverbial "village" raising their children.  There are fabulous things happening at "F" schools with caring and brilliant professionals engaging children every day in the process of learning and growing.  But the  "grade" is a better reflection of a school's socieoeconomic makeup than it is of the true growth happening within. We voters objected to this punitive form of "reform".  Help us, don't punish us.

The "help" Bennett offered was in the form of private businesses waiting in the wings to take over our "failing" schools.  We connected the dots between the testing companies, charter school companies, and the other businesses lining Tony Bennett's campaign coffers and the change occurring in our schools.  "Accountability", "results" and "data-driven": these were the business-speak words with which more and more emphasis on the test was justified.  But we recognized the incongruity with a business model and the very complex, human activity that is education.  The bottom line for a business is profit.  The bottom line for schools is the child.  We understood that these profiteers and politicians were not the experts in children or education, our teachers and educators are.  And we voted in an award-winning, expert educator for the position of educational leadership in our schools.

We parents entrust our children to teachers who know that teaching is an art and a service, not a quantifiable science.  We know that teachers are professionals and we believe in real instruction, classroom experience, knowledge and expertise in how kids learn and grow.  Bennett and Daniels have done much to undermine the professional nature of teaching, all the while bashing them for their lack of professional qualities. We voted for Glenda Ritz because we believe in our public school system and in our teachers.  We recognize the flaws and need for improvements, but we have faith that educators and educational research are the keys to that improvement, not politicians and corporations.

Our message was clear, but our work is just beginning.  Glenda Ritz will need our help to fight the big money seeking to profit from our kids' schools.  We must continue to write to our representatives, to our state board of education, and our governor, holding them accountable for the atmosphere of fear and stress within which our children are trying to learn.  We must work at regaining the local control they have taken away from us.

Over 1,300,000 of us voted for our kids, for our teachers and for our communities, to protect public education, the cornerstone of our democracy, from profiteers.  To truly honor those votes, we must continue to stay informed, engaged and active.  We must keep schools for kids, not for profit.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.