Thursday, October 3, 2013

Karen Francisco: "We're All in This Together"

We are reposting the text of Karen Francisco's general session remarks to ISBA/IAPSS (School Board/Superintendent's Association) fall conference, Sept. 24, 2013. While this is long, it is well worth your time to read because it explains so much of what has happened to public education in Indiana. When you have finished reading it, please send Karen a thank you for all that she does to shine a light on education.
"Thank you so much for asking me to speak today. I have to admit this is a bit disconcerting. Those of you in the audience are usually the people that I’m calling and that I’m hoping will talk. This experience is throwing me off a little bit.

When I’m asked to speak to groups on the subject of education, I like to note the distinction that I am an editorial writer – I write opinion, sometimes my own under my byline, often the opinion of The Journal Gazette editorial board. That’s different from the role of reporters, who are expected to remain neutral. It is an important distinction, however.

The other point I want to make is that I’m speaking today with the full knowledge and support of my publisher, Julie Inskeep, and my editor, Craig Klugman.

Two years ago I spoke to the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and some of my remarks were quoted in a column by Dan Carpenter of the Indianapolis Star. The next day, my editor received a call from the governor’s office. It was apparently an attempt to put me in a bad position with my boss.

Of course, Craig knew that I was speaking to the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and told the governor’s spokeswoman that he was aware of it and that my remarks were not a problem.

Now, I’m not sure what it says about the governor’s office, that speaking to a group of public education supporters would be viewed as subversive.

But I think it probably does say something profound about the very difficult environment in which Indiana public schools have operated for the past several years.

This audience certainly is in the position to know how difficult it has been, and also to know that the real story about your schools has not been told.

That’s what I’m hoping to help you with today -- How to rewrite the story of Indiana public education, or at least how to tell the rest of the story.

Some of you probably remember those old radio spots, where announcer Paul Harvey would offer a news item, pause for a commercial message and then deliver “the rest of the story.” They were entertaining stories, and their lasting effect is as a reminder that there’s often more to what a listener or reader is offered –- another side of the story.

That is certainly true for public education today. While schools always have been subject to claims that they were tougher or better “back in the day” – when people walked two miles uphill – to and from school.

But the criticism today isn’t fueled by nostalgia, but by outside forces – forces intent on painting public education in the worst possible light.

We hear endless references to the “failing public schools.” We hear administrators and teachers described as selfish and resistant to change. Recently, some critics have taken to calling public schools “government schools.” – as if they are horrible institutions in which no one would want find themselves or their children.

You’ve heard some criticism unique to Indiana schools -- some are “Taj Mahal schools” or they are failing schools where children need choices now because they “can’t wait” for things to improve.

And then we hear the lofty language of “choice” – scholarships, not vouchers. Tuition-free, not taxpayer-supported. Schools of choice, not government schools.

It’s very deliberate language from critics intent on controlling the message.

And how have they come to control the message about public education in Indiana? With 24-7 access to information, it would seem that people have every opportunity to learn about public schools – to hear about their successes, about the hard work educators are doing and the tremendous strides they are helping students make.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are a number of reasons why, but to talk about the issues facing your business, it’s necessary to tell you a little bit about my business, because I think the two are irrevocably linked.

In fact, if there’s anyone who can relate to the tough climate public schools have operated in for the past few years -- - it’s those of us in the newspaper industry.

Here are some figures for you to think about – and they might resonate even more with those of you who have faced the difficult task of closing schools. In 1983, there were 1,701 daily newspapers in the United States. By 1993, the number had fallen by nearly 200. By 2003, it had decreased by more than 300. Today, there are about 1,375 daily newspapers in the U.S.

The loss of entire newspaper operations obviously means the loss of jobs, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. At the remaining 1,300-plus newspapers, tens of thousands of jobs have been eliminated.

2008 was the most brutal year in journalism. A website called “Paper Cuts” tracks layoffs in our industry. There were 16,000 newspaper jobs eliminated in 2008, counting all areas of production.

In newsrooms alone, 17,600 jobs have disappeared since 2006. I don’t have a breakdown for Indiana newspapers, but I can tell you, having spent 30-plus years in Indiana journalism, that hundreds of newsroom jobs have been eliminated in this state – and they are unlikely ever to return.

So what does that have to do with Indiana public schools?

Well, it means, quite simply, that there are fewer storytellers. There are fewer education reporters to cover school board meetings. There are fewer reporters to write feature stories about outstanding teachers and fascinating new programs. There are fewer reporters to write about technology in the classrooms, or students excelling at college-level work.

It also means there are fewer sports reporters to cover cross country or wrestling or even the biggest football game on any given Friday night.

It means there are fewer community editors to handle honor rolls or spelling bee winners or marching band results.

It means, in short, that much of the everyday good news about public schools is not being reported – the kind of news that in years past connected residents to their schools and made them proud to support them – even if they no longer had children enrolled there.

Unfortunately if a newspaper or TV station looks closely at a public school these days, it’s for a response to ISTEP+ scores, or for comments on budget cuts or some sort of alleged scandal.

Another reason the success stories of public schools are going unreported is that Indiana residents and everyone else have found other ways to read the news they want. Instead of picking up the morning paper or tuning into the local 6 o’clock news, they log onto Facebook, or check their Twitter feeds.

If a mutual friend is urging them to vote against the local school referendum, that’s all they need to know. Or, if a Facebook friend has posted a story about a superintendent retiring with a six-figure benefits package, along with some derogatory comments, that’s all they need to know. If a Facebook friend is extolling the quality of her child’s private-school experience, that’s all they need to know.

Of course, none of this is a problem as far as the parents in your own school districts are concerned. Those who are closest to the schools are those who know them best, and they are pleased with the work being done there. Public opinion poll after public opinion poll tells us this.

The latest is the well-respected Phil Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. If you haven’t looked at the results of this year’s survey, released just a month ago, you should.

Parents of public school students were asked to assign a letter grade to the school their oldest child attends. 71 percent of those surveyed gave a grade of A or B to their schools. That’s the highest percentage in 20 years, up from 68 percent in 2008.

Parents also believe their schools are safe. Asked if they fear for the physical safety of their oldest child while at school, 88 percent said no, compared to just 63 percent in 1998. Think about that – after Newtown, after Columbine – public school parents feel better about the safety of their schools.

But then there are the respondents who are NOT public school parents. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed in the Phi Delta Kappa poll, in fact, do not have children in public schools.

Those 67 percent of residents – higher and lower percentages depending on where you live – are the primary targets of those who are painting public schools as inferior, as unsafe and wasteful.

They are counting on the growing influence of social media. They are counting on their ability to control the message. They are counting on the declining availability of local news coverage.

Who are “they”? Yes, I know it sounds a bit paranoid. But what’s that old saying? Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you?

I think public school supporters should take that to heart.

I mentioned my editor, Craig. He’s sort of a gruff, old-school type, who spent quite a few years in Chicago journalism. One thing he stresses endlessly: Follow the money.

For those of you in public education, follow the money likely means following it to that “reset button” pushed in 2009, when $300 million disappeared and has never been returned. It means following the tens of thousands or even millions your school district is losing to property tax caps. It might mean following the thousands of dollars lost with each child who withdraws from your district and enrolls in a parochial or charter school.

In my case, there’s been lots of money to follow. There the money spent on charter schools operated by for-profit education management companies. In one case, I’ve followed the money from Indiana taxpayers to a real estate investment trust in Kansas City. This real estate investment trust, which also owns a couple of charter school properties here in Indianapolis, has holdings in megaplex theaters, ski resorts, water parks, vineyards and public charter schools. It brings to mind that old “Which one of these is not like the others, right?”

In 2011, Indiana taxpayers spent more than $3.2 million in rent – that’s rent -- on just four Indiana charter school properties owned by this real estate investment trust in Kansas City. The company earned nearly $85 million in profits in 2010. Its triple net lease agreement makes the tenant – essentially Indiana taxpayers – responsible for maintenance costs, utilities, insurance and taxes.

In the case of one of the Indianapolis schools, 22 percent of its budget was going to building costs, even as the governor’s office criticized traditional public schools for capital projects and pushed for more dollars to the classroom.

In following the money, I also followed the frequent out-of-state travel the previous state superintendent of public instruction made in 2011. It was a victory lap, of sorts, beginning right after the school voucher bill was approved, signed and kissed – literally—by the governor. And if you don’t believe me, check the YouTube video – it’s the first state law I’ve ever seen signed with a kiss.

Superintendent Tony Bennett traveled across the country multiple times to boast of Indiana’s success in passing a voucher law. When I submitted FOIA requests for travel records and emails related to the trips, I was stonewalled – told that I was not requesting material with “sufficient particularity.”

I was told that records did not exist.

I was told that a staff member who handled the records had just left and there was confusion as to where the information could be found.

I was also told, interestingly, that my requests should not distract the staff from the department’s work. When I asked how the out-of-state travel might be distracting the superintendent and his top aides from their work, I was told it did not; they were busy in crafting rules on vouchers, teacher evaluations and the school A-F system.

We now know, of course, they weren’t having a great deal of success with that A-F system, and that they were spending some time on re-election work, as well.

Where it’s most difficult to ignore the troubling signs, however, is in following the millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Contributions from groups with high-minded names like “Stand for Children Indiana” and the “American Federation for Children.”

If you follow Stand for Children Indiana in the campaign finance database you’ll learn that its physical address is in Portland, Ore.

Follow the contributions to Stand for Children and you’ll find that they came from the pro-school choice mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and from the head of the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

And you’ll see that they flowed last year from Portland, Ore., to Indiana – to the campaign coffers of the former state superintendent, to the Speaker of the Indiana House, to the chairman of the House Education committee and to a Republican member of the Senate Education Committee. They flowed to a candidate who formerly was chief of staff for the Department of Education.

At least I think that’s where it went – the candidate is curiously misidentified – not once, but twice -- on the contribution reports. If you were to quickly search the reports to see if Stand for Children Indiana gave money to this candidate, you wouldn’t find it -- it doesn’t show up in a search of contributions by name. It’s only in carefully searching entire lists of contributions that you find it.

And if you work backward to follow the contributions on that Republican House member’s campaign finance report you’ll find that Stand for Children also is mysteriously misspelled, not once – but twice – as Stand for Childred – again, an error that would throw off a search by contributor.

By the way, voters in that representative’s Hamilton County district might want to ask how it is that a member of the House Education Committee can’t spell the word “children.”

Following the money linked to the American Federation for Children is where things become really interesting, and it’s where you begin to see how intricately connected the so-called school reform movement has become.

The American Federation for Children shows two addresses in campaign finance records. One is in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia – the other is in Terre Haute, the same address as the law offices of James Bopp. If you’re not familiar with James Bopp, he is a conservative activist, the former GOP national committeeman for Indiana and the legal muscle behind the controversial Citizens United ruling that has allowed unlimited corporate spending in federal elections.

The American Federation for Children is truly the engine in the school reform movement. And while its name suggests a huge, beneficent movement – it’s really a rather small group of uber-wealthy conservatives determined to push school voucher legislation in every state.

The American Federation for Children has contributed nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to Indiana candidates since 2010. With the exception of Tony Bennett, the money was funneled through other committees, primarily Hoosiers for Economic Growth.

Hoosiers for Economic Growth last year contributed more than $1.1 million to Republican Statehouse candidates who, in turn, continued to pass education reform bills, even though many of those same Republican candidates said before the election that it was time to take a break and see how earlier changes were working.

The most expansive school voucher program in the nation was expanded again this year. And now we know that some changes in budget language allowed the governor to create an entire new education agency, one that is essentially autonomous from the Department of Education and Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

The story of education reform in Indiana is so complex – so intertwined – that I’m not sure the rest of the story can easily be told to casual observers. But I would hope that those of you in this room are taking the time to untangle all of the threads.

In Indiana, there is a determined core of ed reformers whose names repeatedly come up, either as campaign contributors, or appointees to education-related boards. Seldom do these reformers have any real experience with public schools – not as educators, not as school board members – In some cases, not even as public school parents.

Remember how I told you my industry and yours are so closely tied? I believe that one factor in the attack on Indiana public schools was that newspapers were not performing the watchdog function that is the heart and soul of our First Amendment privilege. We let you down, quite honestly. Tough, investigative reporting fell by the wayside with newspaper staff cuts. My industry also fell for some of the same misleading charges that have convinced politicians. Solid education reporting was replaced by education reform reporting. Even after the failed experiments of open classrooms and site-based management and more, too few reporters were asking tough questions about unproven approaches.

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff – now the mayor of Chicago (and no friend of public education, by the way)– said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

No where was that taken to heart as enthusiastically as Indiana. The state’s budget problems became a sort of battering ram at the door of public schools. Even before that giant reset button was hit and $300 million was cut, the state pushed through property tax “reform” -- there’s that word again – that essentially gutted local control of public education. Authority you once had over your budgets and your enrollment is now gone. Anyone who objected – to the effects of property tax caps, or limits on capital budget spending or anything else – was criticized as “protecting the status quo” or worse, putting adults before children.

This was the work of very determined, very clever politicians – Politicians who have been on record for decades as critics of Indiana public schools. They used the recession -- a crisis – as an opportunity to pass laws they had sought for many years. Over time, the policies they’ve pushed will fail, but you and other public education supporters can’t wait for that to happen.

Now, it’s the rest of the story that needs to be told, and what I hope you’ll take from my remarks today, is what really is happening in public schools today. It’s not the story of children trapped in failing schools, held hostage by adults protecting their turf and the status quo.

Telling the rest of the story is truly a case of speaking truth to power.

We saw a very good example of it just about a year ago, when the A to F grades were issued and some brave public school superintendents spoke up to question not the results, but the formula itself.

Now we know the formula might have been “plausible,” but we also know that it was contrived. Don’t believe for a moment that the study of the A-F formula released a couple of weeks ago vindicated or exonerated anyone. That’s the political spin put on it by people embarrassed to have defended it, but you don’t choose a word like “plausible” if you are attempting to clear the air.

In fact, the legislative charge for the study very intentionally directed the authors of the study NOT to investigate the motive behind the grade change. And the recommendations for how a grading system should be established are so contrary to what currently exists that it’s clear the authors didn’t intend to endorse it any fashion.

In telling the rest of the story, it’s important to remind legislators again and again that public school administrators raised the initial questions. And while those legislators are now quick to tell everyone that they already had ordered the system revised – even before Christelgate – the fact is that they wouldn’t have done it on their own.

Another way to tell the rest of the story about public education is to challenge the narrative of failing public schools. If you’re not sure how, I would point you to the work of Vic Smith. I know that many of you here know Vic. He spent 40 years in education, retiring as associate director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association in 2009. As a school board member or superintendent, you should be familiar with the research he has done tracking the progress of Indiana schools. It amounts to 23 years of progress:

Rising attendance rates. Graduation rates. SAT verbal and math scores. ACT composite scores. NAEP scores. ISTEP+ scores. The percentage of Indiana high school graduates going to college. The percentage of Indiana graduates earning an academic honors diploma.

All of these have steadily increased. Not just in the last year since vouchers were approved. Not just since charter schools were approved a decade ago and the competition was supposed to force traditional schools to improve.

No, these improvements that Vic Smith documents have been occurring steadily for 23 years. You need to share this information – you need to tell the rest of the story.

Another point you should make: As Indiana schools have been improving, economic and social conditions have been deteriorating. There have been reports in recent weeks about the dismal economic progress Hoosiers have made.

A Ball State study found that the average per capita income statewide is at a 1996 level. In some counties, it’s much worse – lagging the rest of the nation by 30 years.

The poverty piece can’t be ignored when talking about education. Figures from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest Kids Count report show that in 2010, the food insecurity rate for children was nearly 23 percent. That’s nearly one in four Indiana children living in households where the availability of food is uncertain, insufficient or limited due to economic, physical or other constraints. That’s appalling, and it’s not the fault of public schools.

In 2011, 23 percent of Indiana children lived in poverty. Again, an appalling figure. For many years, Indiana’s child poverty rate was lower than the national average, but it has matched or surpassed the national figure since 2009. Yet our political leaders continue to boast of some sort of an economic miracle in this state.

As public school leaders, you are on the front lines of seeing the effects of these dismal numbers. I can’t imagine that any public school district in the state is entirely immune from them, even if some see it to far greater effect.

Which brings me to an important point in sharing the rest of the story. One approach the school-reform crowd has used to great advantage is the divide-and-conquer tactic. As they have pushed anti-public education measures, they’ve succeeded by telling the legislators whose votes they need that their own district’s schools won’t be affected. Reform is for those “failing big-city schools,” they say. Yet they pass sweeping, statewide legislation that has effects on all schools.

I understand that your first obligation is to your own school districts – and you’ve certainly had enough placed on each of you to keep you busy responding to those issues.

But the fact is that protecting turf within suburban, urban and rural districts has had the effect of hurting all schools. And when any public school is struggling, that struggle becomes a weapon to use against all schools. When speaking on behalf of public education, the message should be that you’re all in this together.

And the message doesn’t have to be defensive. If you know anything about what I write, you probably know that I’m practically a broken record when it comes to the subject of early learning. I never miss an opportunity to point out Indiana’s embarrassing record in providing early childhood education. You all know how long it took to finally get full-day kindergarten in this state, but achieving that milestone still brought us up just to the back of the pack. Indiana is one of just 10 states that dedicate no state dollars toward preschool.

You can accept the argument that we’ve suffered through a recession, but consider that we managed to build a huge state budget surplus and pass along not only a tax refund, but also new tax breaks for businesses.

And the business community already is back looking for more – I received an op-ed article just last week from an economic development group calling for another tax deduction to be approved in the next legislative session – this one allowing manufacturers to take a deduction for domestic production.

I know that all of you are busy, but I haven’t received any op-eds from administrators or school board members calling for investment in early learning. Yet there’s an easy case to be made for it. After you’ve studied Vic Smith’s research on the success of Indiana public schools, look at James Heckman’s work on early learning.

He has this to say:
“Some kids win the lottery at birth, far too many don’t – and most people have a hard time catching up over the rest of their lives. Children raised in disadvantaged environments are not only much less likely to succeed in school or in society, but they are also much less likely to be healthy adults. A variety of studies show that factors determined before the end of high school contribute to roughly half of lifetime earnings inequality. This is where our blind spot lies: success nominally attributed to the beneficial effects of education, especially graduating from college, is in truth largely a result of factors determined long before children even enter school.”
James Heckman is a Nobel Laureate in economics; he teaches at the University of Chicago. Heckman looks at early learning in terms of its value. That’s the rest of the story Indiana legislators and voters need to hear.

I don’t want to finish without giving you some very concrete tips on communicating with audiences beyond your own school communities. I know I didn’t paint an encouraging picture of your local newspaper, but don’t overlook it as an important part of telling your story.

Certainly, you have to respond when controversy arises or something bad happens, but there are ways to encourage local news outlets to tell their audiences more about schools. First, invite them to come and learn what’s new. When they write about it, make a point to thank the reporter, and the editor and publisher for the coverage. When it’s budget time and tough decisions have to be made, share the story behind it before your critics get the chance to control the message. If you’re hoping to pass a referendum, the local newspaper can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Make your case.

Finally, I want to end with some encouragement. I think there are better days ahead for public schools. I think the holes in the education reform story are growing larger every day, and I would like to think that good journalism – and good public policy involving public records – helped expose those holes.

A public radio reporter asked me recently if I call myself an “advocate” for public education. For someone who has spent years consciously avoiding labels of Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it’s uncomfortable to describe myself as an advocate. But the more I thought of it, the more willing I was to accept the title.

Education historian Diane Ravitch had this to say about public education in her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”:
“As a nation, we need a strong and vibrant public education system. As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. In fact we must take care to make our public schools once again the pride of our nation. Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own life and to improve the commonweal. To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.”
I hope you’ll join me in claiming the title of advocates for public education and help me to tell the rest of the story of the Great Indiana School System."
If you appreciate the outstanding reporting that Karen Francisco does, and if you appreciate the support that the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette gives to public education, please write them a thank you to let them know how important their work is to all of us.


No comments: