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10 Big Wins For Public Education in 2013

Here are 10 great reasons to have hope that corporate education reform may soon be a thing of the past.

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Mass closures like these show little evidence of improving learning. And public school advocates claim they roil communities and disrupt children’s learning, in some places forcing kids to cross gang lines to attend new schools. Black and Latino students are disproportionately represented in schools slated for closure. In Chicago, closed schools housed over double the average proportion of black students. The Annenberg Institute found that in the years before New York City closes a school, its special-needs population typically balloons.

Duncan and fellow reformers have long pushed the line that school closures somehow improve schools. As former Chicago Public Schools CEO, Duncan helped launch the Renaissance 2010 program, which closed scores of schools and replaced them largely with charters. Though the results have been uninspiring, Duncan and Obama pledged in 2009 to scale the project nationally, aiming to shutter 5,000 schools. In 2013, a nationwide movement grew to challenge them.

4. Bridgeport Reclaims Board of Education

In 2012, the state of Connecticut dissolved the democratically elected, occasionally dysfunctional Bridgeport school board and reformed it according to their whims and wiles. The new board happened to tap reform luminary Paul Vallas as superintendent, whose swath of successes included presiding over the charterization of New Orleans, leaving Philadelphia with a $73 million budget hole, and launching Chicago’s free-market reform model in the late '90s.

The state courts soon invalidated the appointed board and allowed elections to resume. In 2012 Bridgeport residents shot down a handsomely funded mayoral-control referendum that would have relieved them of the burden of electing their own school board. In 2013, they voted in a slate of progressive Working Families Party candidates in a sharp rebuke to the reforms that had blown in from afar.

As is his wont, Vallas is already making for the door after his perfunctory and disruptive stint. As he joins Illinois governor Pat Quinn on the campaign trail, Bridgeport looks ready to steer itself in a new educational direction.

3. California Ensures Fairness in its School Funding Formula

The US education system distinguishes itself in myriad ways. In only two other developed countries, for instance, do disadvantaged students receive fewer resources than their wealthy peers. America achieves this by tying school funding largely to property taxes, with the predictable result that poverty pools in poorer schools and wealth barricades itself in the suburbs.

California struck a major blow at the system this year. In August, the legislature passed significant reforms to the school funding formula, which will eventually send up to 50 percent more funding toward districts where poor students, English language learners and kids with special needs are concentrated. The legislation also delegates more autonomy to municipalities in allocating funds.

The formula will take eight years to come into full effect, and all the wrinkles have yet to be smoothed. But it has overwhelming public support and promises to bring the largest state in the union in line with equitable funding practices that few states currently grasp.

2. De Blasio Elected to Reverse Bloomberg Reforms

When New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced on the campaign trail his intention to charge charter schools rent, the reform community went apoplectic. Charter sector heavyweights canceled classes for a morning to hold a media-saturated rally defending their rent exception. (New York state law requires all charters that lease public space to do so “at cost,” but longtime mayor Mike Bloomberg skirted the statute, helping charters multiply over his decade-long tenure.)

Despite his “ war on good schools,” de Blasio captured nearly three-quarters of the vote, with education a key element in his “ tale of two cities” campaign trope. In addition to charging charters rent, de Blasio has promised to impose a moratorium on school closures and to fund universal pre-K through a tax on the wealthy.