With Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.

June 22 2016 4:03 PM

The Tragedy in Oaxaca Really Puts America’s Squabbles Over Education Reform in Perspective

There’s a nastiness to conversations about U.S. education reform, which are characterized by the kind of stark taking-of-sides that’s usually reserved for debates over guns or abortion rights. One side often sees the other as union-busting corporate reformers who’ve never been inside an actual classroom yet are hell-bent on reducing all learning to meaningless, time-destroying tests and evaluations. The other, at its worst, portrays its opponents as parasitic, lazy, abusive teachers who care more about their benefits package than the children they’re supposed to be educating. Both are dangerous, inaccurate distortions that keep divisions within the education community fresh and festering.

But however rancorous the debate gets, the U.S. has never seen anything like what happened in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, over the weekend, when a massive strike organized by a radical wing of the country’s largest teachers union turned into a violent confrontation with police. At last (disputed) count, nine people, including one journalist, have been killed, about 100 (a combination of civilians and police officers) have been injured, and at least 20 arrested. It’s a tragic culmination of what should’ve been a peaceful dispute over what the future of education in Mexico should look like.


First, some glancing background, since this was by no means an out-of-thin-air showdown: For decades, the left-leaning Oaxaca teachers union, the National Coordinator of Education Workers (or CNTE), has gone on annual strikes that usually yielded modest pay raises. In 2006, the state governor sent in 750 police officers to break up the strikes, upping the ante considerably. In the end, the ceremonial strikes became a full-scale civic rebellion that lasted more than six months and led to more than a dozen deaths. More than a million kids were out of school for the duration.

Over the past several years, the strikes of Sección 22, as the Oaxaca chapter of CNTE is known, have had a different focus: the education reforms pushed by President Enrique Peña Nieto, passed the year after he entered office in 2013. The reforms, an attempt to modernize Mexico’s flailing education system and therefore the country as a whole, mandate a test given to teachers as well as a performance review. If teachers fail three times in a row, they could be fired, stripped of the job security they’ve traditionally enjoyed. It's an evaluation system that's completely without precedent in the history of Mexican education.

In the run-up to this weekend’s conflagration, the government has fired teachers en masse for striking and jailed several Sección 22 leaders on money laundering charges. The union, meanwhile, no stranger to violent tactics, has shut down streets, disrupted traffic on the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca, and blocked access to an important oil refinery in the region.

Then, on Sunday, the explosion. Protesters in Oaxaca threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and set cars on fire; riot police took over and “unknown gunmen” opened fire on the crowd in an apocalyptic scene that one El País correspondent aptly compared to Iraq:

(While the Associated Press filmed at least one policeman shooting a gun, the government denies that the federal police were armed; there were also state police present.) Chaos reigned.

So was this confrontation inevitable—and will it ever be resolved?

Here is a viral video (in Spanish) of a teacher explaining why the mandatory tests are so unwelcome: because Mexico is a huge, diverse country (sound familiar?) and you can’t hold teachers in the capital to the same standards as, say, those in the remote mountains of Chiapas. (He also says, to much audience approval, that Peña Nieto, who has the reputation of a lightweight, probably wouldn’t be able to meet the standards he’s imposing on teachers himself.)

And it’s true that some of the teachers in rural areas might not have the same academic qualifications—particularly in a place like Oaxaca, which for all its tourist delights of its capital is one of Mexico’s poorest states, with a large indigenous population and substandard infrastructure. In this Carlos Puig column from 2013, the New York Times gives a good description of the unquantifiable daily challenges that some of these teachers face:

Being a teacher in Oaxaca means sometimes having to travel for an entire day to reach your school in a tiny community, teach for three days — to children of all grades — and travel back home for the weekend. It means having to deal with children who speak more than 20 different dialects.
Being a teacher in Oaxaca means operating in a different universe — and under different rules.

On the other hand, the Mexican education system is struggling—with the majority of Mexican elementary school graduates unable to perform even basic arithmetic—and many Mexicans support reform of some sort, though it’s unclear that the haphazard measures pushed by Peña Nieto will do the trick. And again, while there are other pressing societal problems affecting the country's schools, like child poverty and infrastructure and funding (to say nothing of what or how students are taught), so far much of the debate has focused on these teacher evaluations.

After the horrific events of Sunday, teachers in other Mexican cities are mobilizing in solidarity with Oaxaca, and there have even been protests in front of the Mexican Embassy in Paris. But there's little hope of reconciliation between the Peña Nieto's government and the dissident unions. The CNTE will continue protesting the reforms, as it has every right to do; the Peña Nieto administration will continue pushing its education reform agenda, as it has staked much on its success. (The education secretary has just reaffirmed that the reforms are “not subject to negotiation.”)

In the absence of any common ground, we can only hope that, in the future, Mexicans on opposing sides of the education reform debate can pursue this frustrating, irresolvable, and utterly necessary conversation without the riot police having to get involved.

June 21 2016 11:31 AM

Ohio Is Trying to Clean Up Its Sketchy Charter Schools. Has It Done Enough?

Ohio has long been an embarrassment to charter-school supporters nationwide, with its trail of scandal and graft and abysmal student performance. So it seemed like a good development when, in late 2015, the state passed a big charter-school reform bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The new law was an attempt to add “transparency and accountability” to Ohio’s massive (and in the past, massively mismanaged) $1 billion charter-school sector: a series of small changes, like more detailed financial reporting requirements and fewer big-money conflicts of interest, that, taken all together, would produce a more tightly regulated charter industry and better schools.

Are the reforms working? There are definite signs of progress: The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on June 14 that 11 low-performing charter schools in the state have lost their financial backing as a result of the new restrictions.


But apparently Ohio isn’t out of the woods yet, at least not according to senior U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who also happens to be a shortlister for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s VP slot. (On Tuesday, Brown called Donald Trump a “factory of bad ideas.”)

On Monday, Brown sent a letter to Education Secretary John King in which he asked the feds to keep monitoring Ohio’s troubled charter sector closely. Making no mention of Ohio’s new charter law, Brown writes:

Ohio’s current lack of oversight wastes taxpayer’s money and undermines the ostensible goal of charters: providing more high-quality education opportunities for children. There exists a pattern of waste, fraud and abuse that is far too common and requires extra scrutiny.

The letter’s ostensible pretext was the disbursement of a $71 million Charter School Program (or CSP) grant that the U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio in September—funds that were frozen when it emerged that Ohio’s charter chief at the time (who happened to be married to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s former chief of staff and then–presidential campaign manager) had greatly understated the number of failing charters in the state.

To make his case that the feds should do some more fact-checking before doling out the cash, Brown cites a May report that, in the 20 years that the Department of Education has been handing out CSP grants, Ohio has received nearly $100 million, more than any other state except Florida and California. Nearly one-third of that money went to schools that have since closed; $4 million went to schools that never opened at all. (Ouch.) Brown cited another May report on attendance issues, particularly at “drop-out recovery prevention charter schools, some of which had attendance rates of less than fifty percent during the surprise inspections.”

All legit concerns—and, unlike his potential future boss Hillary Clinton, who has a muddy record on school reform, Brown has earned his right to ask these questions. Last year he introduced the Charter School Accountability Act, parts of which were incorporated into the Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress in December. Brown has also been a longtime crusader against for-profit colleges. But asking questions is one thing; getting answers, not to mention realizing actual improvements, is quite another.

June 17 2016 11:57 AM

The Upper West Side Is the Latest Battleground for School Integration in New York

New York City has an integration problem. This is nothing new, of course; the supposedly most diverse city in the world has long had some of the most segregated schools in the country, and that’s saying something.

In recent months, the city’s battle over school segregation has played out in a few specific schools in some of the its fastest-gentrifying (or already gentrified-to-saturation-point) neighborhoods: Nikole Hannah-Jones chronicled the Brooklyn version of the saga in her much-discussed New York Times Magazine piece last weekend, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” about her decision to send her black daughter to a mostly minority school, only to have that school rezoned to include an affluent, predominantly white population.


The Upper West Side is another place where the “rights” of rich parents are being pitted against the reality of the neighborhood’s demographics. The current battleground is the sought-after P.S. 452 on West 77th Street, a stone’s throw from the Museum of Natural History.

Like so many public schools in New York City, P.S. 452 has a lopsided enrollment, with a population that’s three-quarters white and Asian, with only 13 percent of kids qualifying for free lunch, in a district that’s 43 percent white and Asian and 48 percent low-income, according to a Chalkbeat story on the brewing controversy.

P.S. 452, which opened in 2010 to relieve overcrowding in other nearby sought-after schools, quickly became overcrowded itself. And so the city proposed moving the school, which currently shares a building with two other schools, 16 blocks south, to a site with more space that happens to be just adjacent to large housing projects. In one swoop, the city could solve the school’s capacity problem while improving its diversity.

But of course, in an as-if-scripted repetition of the integration fights that have gone down since the birth of busing, many current P.S. 452 parents are up in arms against the proposal. After all, didn’t they buy their expensive Upper West Side domiciles precisely for the right to attend this fabulously high-performing school? That, at least, is the argument getting the most airtime.

Bill de Blasio, the great white hope of progressivism when he was elected—the guy who’s married to a black woman, after all—has stumbled when it comes to integrating schools, on the Upper West Side and elsewhere. From the Chalkbeat story:

The mayor has expressed support for school diversity, but he also has said the city must respect parents’ real-estate investments (a statement that at least one P.S. 452 parent repeated this week), while Chancellor Carmen Fariña has warned against forcing integration “down people’s throats.”

Fariña’s line about forcing integration down people’s throats is almost laughable, for what else is the whole history of integration in this country but one of force-feeding, often in the form of landmark Supreme Court decisions?

P.S. 452’s principal and many of its teachers are on board with the rezoning proposal, as are some parents. “There’s more support among parents than is generally acknowledged,” one P.S. 452 parent who favors the rezoning told me, “but those folks have been less organized and less vocal. There’s also been a fair amount of vitriol that has divided parents on the issue and hasn’t left a lot of room for nuance,” he said. “When parents blast the principal and faculty for lack of understanding because some do not have children themselves, it’s hard to pursue a civilized conversation and find common ground.”

“Truth be told, I like the school where it is,” this parent said. The school’s relocation would increase his family’s morning commute—one of the anti-rezoning contingent’s biggest arguments against the move—but, he said, “the needs of the community outweigh my own personal convenience.”

One P.S. 452 parent speaking out against the move is comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, who’s married to Samantha Bee. "To portray any opposition as classist or racist is as bad as it can get," Jones told WNYC. And elsewhere: "We are not divided,” he said at a public hearing about the proposal, “we are absolutely united in wanting what's best for our children," then encouraged fellow parents not to talk to the press about the controversy.

So what’s going to happen? If precedent is any guide, the well-organized—and well-heeled—parents of P.S. 452 will likely win the day. Last year, a similar drama went down in the neighborhood when the city proposed changing the attendance zones so that some of the kids at the overcrowded (and also mostly white and middle-class) P.S. 199 would be reassigned to the under-enrolled (and also mostly minority and poor) P.S. 191.

An uproar ensued, and the city eventually tabled the rezoning plans, proposing instead a labyrinthine solution that lands P.S. 452 in the building that currently houses P.S. 191. Now that P.S. 452 parents have rejected this compromise, what’s the city going to come up with next?

June 14 2016 12:45 PM

It’s Ridiculous How Little We Pay Preschool Teachers

Preschool shouldn’t be controversial, but then again we live in 2016, when we can’t even agree to get guns out of the hands of terror suspects. On the early-education front, there’s no solid consensus on the type of preschool kids should attend, or even whether they should be in school at all at such a young age, or what if any impact preschool has on the achievement gap.

But most researchers (and yeoman parents like me) do agree that teacher quality matters a lot in the early years. A recent study of studies found that preschool is only as effective as the people at the front of the classroom, and that makes sense: At a time when social-emotional learning is so crucial, the presence of well-trained, sensitive, loving teachers can make or break a preschool experience.


And yet. In spite of the rising need for childcare in this country—approximately 58 percent of mothers of infants work full time—and its increasingly obscene cost, preschool teachers are paid very, very little. A new report from the Department of Education highlights the ludicrously low wages paid to preschool teachers, who made an average of $28,570 last year. Daycare worker salaries are even more pitiable, with the average worker making $9.77 an hour in 2015, or $20,320 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s no wonder daycare workers have joined fast-food employees and other hourly wage workers in the Fight for $15.

Move up to kindergarten, and your salary nearly doubles: The average kindergarten salary last year was $51,640—no king’s ransom, to be sure, but certainly a living wage in most parts of the country (though now does seem like a good opportunity to revive the shocking statistic that the top 25 hedge-fund managers make more—by more than $3 billion—than all kindergarten teachers in the country combined).

By contrast, in 13 states, including high cost-of-living ones like California, preschool teachers make less than half what kindergarten teachers make, and in six states preschool teachers salaries were below the poverty level for a family of four.

So you love little kids and want to shape their malleable young minds from earliest childhood? Unless you also like living in credit-card debt, or sharing a two-bedroom apartment with four of your closest friends, then you’d best consider picking another favorite age group, or a different profession altogether.

Or just settle here in D.C., one of the few places in the country that pays its preschool teachers fairly: The starting salary for public school teachers here, from 3-year-olds on up, is $51,359, nearly twice the national average—which is surely related, as I’ve written elsewhere, to the concentration of fantastic preschool teachers who work in the District.

June 10 2016 1:07 PM

The Government Says Chronic School Absenteeism Is a Crisis. What Can We Do About It?

The Department of Education just released its first-ever report on what it labels a “hidden educational crisis”—chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 15 days of school in a year—in American schools, and the statistics are sobering: In the 2013–2014 school year, more than 6.5 million kids fell into this category. That’s about 13 percent of students missing at least three weeks of school.

While the absenteeism rates are fairly similar for boys and girls, the numbers vary a great deal by race. The Department of Education report finds:

... compared to their white peers, American Indian and Pacific Islander students are over 50 percent more likely to lose three weeks of school or more, black students 30 percent more likely, and Hispanic students 9 percent more likely.

The numbers edge higher as kids get older, too: Almost 20 percent of high school students are chronically absent, compared to 12 percent of middle-schoolers and 10 percent of elementary-school students. In high school again, minority groups have higher-than-average rates, with 21 percent of Hispanic students, 23 percent of black students, and 27 percent of Native Americans qualifying as chronically absent.

In the past, states and districts have relied on inconsistent metrics to measure absenteeism, with some using average daily attendance; tracking the attendance record of each kid is a fairly recent—and welcome—innovation, one that’s now mandated by the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act. This report marks the first concerted effort to aggregate attendance patterns all over the country to see what’s working, and what isn’t.

The data isn’t flawless: The report lumps all forms of absenteeism together, but while there’s obviously a difference between missing school because you’re suspended versus being ill, dealing with a family emergency versus being a plain old truant, the end result seems to be the same—you’re not in the classroom and you’re not learning.

Kids who are absent a lot score lower on tests and do worse in college than kids who aren’t—all of that seems self-evident. Unless you’re one of those child-prodigy musicians skipping out on English class to play Carnegie Hall, you can’t learn unless you show up. But showing up can require a lot of supports in place that many of our students just don’t have.

The most common reasons for absenteeism cited in the Department of Education report—“poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficulty family circumstances”—describe, unfortunately, the conditions of life for many, many public-school students in the U.S., 51 percent of whom come from low-income families.

Is it any wonder that, of the 100 largest school districts in the country, the one with the highest rate of chronic absenteeism was in Detroit, where almost 58 percent of students qualified as “chronically absent”? When kids’ lives are difficult, school can fall by the wayside. Relieve some of their out-of-school burdens and absenteeism should plummet—but that’s, for the understatement of the year, far easier said than done.

In the meantime, a bunch of different organizations are trying a bunch of different stopgaps. In the fall, the Obama administration introduced the “Every Student, Every Day” program to curtail chronic absenteeism, and the nonprofit Get Schooled sends wake-up texts to motivated kids to show up at school. But it seems to be that as long as the majority of public-school kids in this country remain poor, with unstable housing and massive day-to-day challenges, perfect attendance will remain an elusive goal.  

June 8 2016 3:56 PM

Complaints Accuse NYC Schools of Mishandling Sexual-Assault Cases in a Big Way

How do we as a culture respond to sexual violence? It’s a question that’s getting serious airtime in the week that Stanford swimmer-rapist Brock Turner has become a household name, igniting an international debate about how we punish violent sexual offenders.

The latest entrant to the discussion is—or should be—recent complaints filed with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that the New York City Education Department “has a pattern of discrediting and punishing victims of sexual assault, particularly if they are black and poor,” according to a Tuesday story in the New York Times, amounting to an “epidemic” of mishandling rape cases in public schools.


One of the complaints filed by Brooklyn lawyer Carrie Goldberg, whose firm specializes in “internet abuse and sexual consent,” recounts the grisly gang rape of a 15-year-old, with an IQ of 71, who was forced to perform oral sex on two boys in the stairwell of a Brooklyn high school while five other boys watched. After the girl reported the rape to a guidance counselor, the school responded in a thoroughly horrifying manner. From the Times:

[T]he assistant principal interviewed the girl again, this time in the presence of one of the boys who had watched the encounter. [Italics mine.] Based on that interview, the assistant principal concluded that the sex had been consensual and updated the online occurrence report to say that “upon further investigation” the student “admitted it was a consensual act not forced.” As a result, the girl was given a suspension for six days for engaging in sexual acts on campus.

These charges come on the heels of another complaint Goldberg filed in November of last year—first reported in harrowing detail in BuzzFeed back in March—about a 13-year-old eighth-grader who was sent home “indefinitely” after reporting a rape to school administrators. During a meeting about the incident, the school’s principal said the sex acts, which the perpetrator filmed and broadcast on Facebook, “allegedly said that the sex acts on the video ‘looked consensual’ to her,” according to the New York Post. The victim wasn’t offered legal services or counseling; the school didn’t help secure her a safety transfer to another school or even bother forwarding her homework.

These cases don’t just occur in New York City, of course. Schools all over the country are increasingly grappling with how to handle sexual assault among the most vulnerable of populations. A Washington Post story in January detailed the rise of sexual-violence complaints not just on college campuses but in K–12 settings:

The Education Department in fiscal 2015 received 65 civil rights complaints related to K-12 school districts’ handling of sexual violence — triple the number the agency had received the year before.
The agency is investigating 74 cases in 68 school districts, more than double the number of open investigations it reported 14 months ago.

Even more than colleges and universities, public schools don’t seem to have figured out how to respond to very serious sex crimes that occur on their grounds. Sweeping them under the rug, as the NYC schools are accused of doing, doesn’t just threaten their federal funding; it can do indelible damage to the young victims involved. It also teaches kids that rape culture starts young.

June 2 2016 1:26 PM

Impossible Admissions Tests Prevent Many Poor Students from Getting Into New Orleans' Best Schools

Do some public schools, allegedly open to all comers, go out of their way to attract families with more money, more connections, and more flexibility—and shut out families who lack those resources in the process? It’s a familiar question in the age of school choice, one that a recent New Orleans Times-Picayune report tackled head on in a disturbing story on the admissions’ processes at three of the city’s most “exclusive, privileged” public charter schools. (Most schools in New Orleans are charters.)

In post-Katrina New Orleans, there is no longer such an institution as a “neighborhood school”—all families must apply for admission to their preferred schools. Since this process can get pretty onerous, the vast majority of New Orleans charter schools use a transparent common-lottery application, similar to the ones used in other cities like New York and Washington, D.C. These applications—and I speak from personal experience—generally take little to no effort to complete: You plug in your desired schools in order of preference, note any priority (geographic proximity, sibling enrollment), hit “send,” and in due time a computer algorithm matches you, or not, with available slots.


But a small minority of New Orleans public schools has yet to embrace the common application, known as OneApp, which was designed to make the admissions process both easy and equitable. The Times Picayune story examines the “mind-numbingly complex application processes that test a parent's savvy, access to transportation and ability to get off work” at three of these schools, which happen to be among the top-ranked in the city.

If you want to send your child to one of the three schools in this story, you must complete “a unique set of requirements so complicated that parents have made spreadsheets to keep track of the steps,” including some combination of: parent attendance at a school curriculum meeting (no tardiness allowed); a questionnaire; an application hand-delivered to the school during business hours (but not, at one school, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), a “portfolio of the student's work,” whatever that could possibly mean for an early-elementary-age kid; the child's attendance record; and “scores from a single sitting of a standardized exam, with no retests allowed.”

One of the schools requires a “hand-drawn self-portrait, a second piece of artwork and a handwriting sample” for prospective kindergarteners. (Oh, and this work can only be submitted in a specific color of folder that changes every year.) It’s no wonder that one parent in the article compared the admissions process to competing in the Hunger Games.

As a result, compared to the city average of 7 percent gifted students, these schools have gifted populations of 24, 26, and 33 percent. (Leaving aside the question of what “gifted” even means, that’s pretty lopsided). Two of the schools have a wildly disproportionate number of white students in an overwhelmingly black school population.

School officials claim that of course these hurdles don’t put off disadvantaged families; their admissions lotteries are as “transparent and fair” as any other school’s. It’s surely just a coincidence, then, that in a city with some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country, only a certain cohort gets to attend the French Immersion Montessori. 

May 31 2016 11:55 AM

Two-Thirds of Schools Have “Active Shooter” Drills Because America  

Remember those dull fire drills we all endured as children—month after month, snaking in long formation down the hallways and loitering at the periphery of the baseball field until the assistant principal blew the all-clear whistle? It turns out that today’s kids also experience a uniquely America-in-the-21st-century supplement to these exercises: the active-shooter drill.

As reported by the Associated Press last week, a survey by the Government Accountability Office found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools hold some form of “active-shooter” drills to teach kids and teachers how to react in the event that an armed intruder enters the school: “‘Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown,’” the article begins—and it gets more macabre from there:

Some schools make their drills very realistic, simulating the sounds of gunshots and using smoke and fake blood. In one case, armed police officers with weapons drawn burst into a Florida middle school, terrifying staff and students alike…. GAO investigators said one district noted "the difficulty of striking a balance between providing knowledge and inciting fear, particularly at schools with younger children."

Uh, yeah, that’s a tricky one.

In the 1950s, schools conducted “duck and cover” drills to prepare students for the eventuality of an atomic bomb; my mom remembers being herded out of the classroom, lined up against the lockers, and told to fold her arms over her head—as if crisscrossed arms would really safeguard any child from a mushroom cloud. (Here’s a great video for anyone interested in reliving the magic.) From this distance, those exercises appear absurd and almost quaint in their naïveté—yet another rabble-rousing gambit to dramatize the imminent Commie threat that never was.

But active-shooter drills? They are horrifying for the opposite reason—because, in a nation that now has more guns than people, they might just be necessary.

Not a single U.S. school was ever hit by an atomic bomb, obviously, but plenty have been attacked by shooters with military-grade weapons: There have been, according to the AP article, 25 shootings at elementary schools in the U.S. (though one Sandy Hook-formed advocacy group has offered a much higher estimate of 64 school shootings in 2015 alone). So perhaps, deranged as it sounds, instructing teachers to lock their doors and hit the lights, and students to flee to “designated safe locations,” is the logical solution to a very real problem. At any rate, enacting these apocalyptic exercises is certainly easier than reforming gun laws—so what if a few third-graders get traumatized in the process?

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

May 25 2016 1:21 PM

Texas Is Considering a Textbook That Blames Undocumented Immigrants for Crime and Drugs

The whole country seemed to breathe a sigh of relief Tuesday night when far-right conspiracy-theorist-in-grandma’s-clothing Mary Lou “Obama Was a Gay Prostitute” Bruner lost her primary runoff for a seat on the scarily influential Texas State Board of Education. The New York Times, among many other outlets outside of Texas, promptly reported on Bruner’s defeat by chiropractor and local school board member Keven Ellis.

But even if we dodged a bullet this time, is the Texas State Board of Education out of the woods yet—or are there more crises on the horizon? Even without Bruner and her loony theories about the assassination of JFK (hint: the Democrats did it) or the number of special-education students in Texas schools (Mary Lou said half; Texas actually has the lowest percentage of special-education students in the entire country) getting a seat at the table, the Texas State Board of Education continues to be an alarming—and alarmingly powerful—body.


Just this week, the board has gotten embroiled in yet another textbook controversy, this one concerning a proposed tome that offers a unique take on Mexican-American history.

In 2012–2013 school year, Hispanic students constituted 51.3 percent of Texas’ five-million-plus public-school students, and advocates have long called for the state’s curriculum to include more mentions of them. So while at first blush, it might seem like a positive development that Texas has agreed to include a textbook on Mexican-Americans on its list of proposed titles for the 2017-2018 school year, I think it’s safe to say that the only such textbook presented to the board, titled Mexican American Heritage, isn’t exactly what these Latino scholars and activists had in mind when they proposed including Mexican-American history in multicultural electives (which not all districts offer).

Why’s that? Well, some experts might take issue with the characterization of members of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s as people who "adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society." Or perhaps they’d prickle at the passages linking Mexican-Americans to undocumented immigration, which the textbook proceeds to blame for "a number of economic and security problems," including "poverty, drugs, crime, non-assimilation, and exploitation."

Another passage, as reported by the Washington Post, questions how well Mexican-Americans have integrated into U.S. society:

Cubans seemed to fit into Miami well, for example, and find their niche in the business community … Mexicans, on the other hand, seemed more ambivalent about assimilating into the American system and accepting American values…The concern that many Mexican-Americans feel disconnected from American cultures and values is still present.

So why this book, when there are already legit Mexican-American textbooks in circulation? Well, Mexican American Heritage happens to have been produced by a company called Momentum Instruction, which happens to be headed by a controversial SBOE member of yore—Cynthia Dunbar, who was on the state board of education from 2007 and 2011.

Dunbar, a mega–right-wing “Christian activist” and erstwhile Ted Cruz co-chair in Virginia, made headlines during her time on the board for writing a book of her own, One Nation Under God, which called public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” As the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog organization that played a big role in Bruner’s downfall in Tuesday’s run-off, wrote at the time of the book’s publication, Dunbar’s book:

... charges that the establishment of public schools is unconstitutional and even “tyrannical” because it threatens the authority of families, granted by God through Scripture, to direct the instruction of their children…Dunbar, who has home-schooled her children and sent them to private schools, bases that charge on her belief that “the underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents.”

It's impossible to predict whether Mexican American Heritage will get approved by the board. Dunbar's association with its publisher certainly works in the textbook's favor, but the adoption process is long, and the outcry that has greeted its appearance can't be good for its chances. But one thing is certain: As long as Texas remains rife with anti-government activists who are vying for positions in the state government, Texas’—and, because of Texas’ outsize influence on the national textbook market, the nation’s—public education system remains in deep trouble.

As Dan Quinn, Texas Freedom Network’s communications director, told me, even without Bruner, “The state board still has a hardcore faction of ideologues who flatly reject evolution, think climate change science is a hoax, and insist that students learn a politicized distortion of American history that would make Joseph McCarthy and Jerry Falwell almost giddy with glee. That means debates over a proposed Mexican-American studies textbook and revisions of the state’s science and history standards the next two years will likely be as contentious and embarrassing as past board battles.” Oy.

May 24 2016 3:53 PM

This Woman Billed Detroit Schools a Small Fortune for Nonexistent Tutoring. Great Work If You Can Get It!

Detroit Public Schools can’t seem to get anything right. As if the system’s forever-looming bankruptcy, the black mold in its classrooms, and the constant sickouts by frustrated teachers weren’t bad enough, now just two months after a dozen current and former DPS principals were charged with pocketing hundred of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from a school-supply vendor, it transpires that the school district paid a former administrator close to $1.3 million for tutoring services that she never provided. Ouch. 

Carolyn Starkey-Darden, DPS’ director of grant development, retired in 2005 after nearly four decades with the district. According to court documents, she proceeded to spend the next seven years submitting fraudulent tutoring invoices through several companies—one of which, “Grants ‘N Such,” gets my enthusiastic vote for best shell company name of the month—that totaled $1.27 million. 


Starkey-Darden’s scam was nothing if not elaborately executed, according to a Detroit Free Press report on the latest scandal to beset Motor City schools: 

She did this, court records show, by submitting phony documents to the district that included doctored test scores, forged attendance records and parental signatures and fake individual learning plans—all of which went on forms that were required by DPS before payment could be made.

Starkey-Darden’s companies, which the FBI has been investigating since 2011, received $6.1 million in federal programming money, at least $1.2 million of which was “ill-gotten,” per the Free Press.

Sure, you might say—$1.2 million isn’t all that much money. And it’s true that DPS’ (borrowed) operating budget was $725.6 million in the 2013-2014 school year; the district blows through $1.2 million before snack break on a single school day. But still. Pocket change or no pocket change, this scandal—coming on the heels of several principals’ guilty pleas in the kickback scheme earlier this month—is yet another embarrassing PR headache for DPS, all the more unwelcome given that the district is desperately trying to get bailed out by the state over the summer.

Becoming a tutor was among the many attractive post-collegiate side careers I failed to pursue while devoting the bulk of my days to writing fiction. The friends I knew who tutored were well paid for work that seemed far less grueling than waitressing, or late-night newspaper copy editing, or all the other side gigs I attempted in my early twenties. Little did I realize! To be paid really, really good money—like seven figures good—for not even tutoring at all? Now there’s a racket that could’ve funded quite a few novels.