7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the most famous legal case in modern educational history, Brown v. Board of Education. But in the decades since the landmark decision, schools have resegregated dramatically. As education scholar Richard Rothstein writes, “black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been available.”

But if the injustices of a previous age have surged back into prominence, so have popular movements devoted to ending them. From the #BlackLivesMatter protests out of Ferguson to the opt-out movement around standardized testing (very different movements, to be sure), activism around education issues has swelled tremendously in the past year.

These seven stories exemplify the trends that swept through public education in 2014, and will likely shape the course of schooling in years to come.

1. Ferguson

You can't talk about public education in 2014 without starting in Ferguson. The grassroots racial justice movement that has arisen in the wake of 18 year-old Michael Brown’s death has spread from there to cities around the country, as police continue to kill other young, unarmed African Americans.

Painful as it was to watch Brown’s killer escape indictment, it exemplified how hostile the justice system is to young men of color. And as horrifying as it was to see the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice—shot when a police officer mistook his toy gun for a real one—it further illustrated the point that to large portions of white America, black lives matter lesseven the lives of children.

The racism that pervades law enforcement also manifests acutely in our schools. In fact, there is a direct line between the over-policing of black communities and the zero-tolerance discipline practiced in the school system. Boys and girls of color often have their first run-ins with the punitive state not in the street but in the classroom, where black children are suspended at more than three times the rate of whites. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the burgeoning social justice movement sparked by Brown’s death has taken hold in American schools. Student and teacher voices have played a central role in the uprising, with hundreds of students walking out of class from Berkeley to St. Louis to Boston.

At the same time, teachers unaccustomed to discussing race in class have had to decide how (or whether) to address FergusonAt the beginning of 2014, the Justice Department issued sweeping new guidelines concerning discipline and civil rights in the classroom. But as Rothstein and ProPublica journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones have both demonstrated, the roots of Ferguson’s unrest stretch deep, drawing from decades of segregative public policy and educational disinvestment. Hannah-Jones writes:

"Brown’s tragedy, then, is not limited to his individual potential cut brutally short. His schooling also reveals a more subtle, ongoing racial injustice: the vast disparity in resources and expectations for black children in America’s stubbornly segregated educational system."

Not only do many of our communities remain nearly as segregated as they were in 1954, the entire system is skewed against racial minorities. Ferguson shows us that issues of schools, police, community governance and racism are deeply intertwined, as are the movements devoted to seeking justice in the classroom and beyond.

2. Opt Out Everywhere

In 2014, the number of students opting out of standardized tests soared into the tens of thousands. An unprecedented spate of opt-outs last spring—60,000 students in New York, thousands more in districts across the country, with entire schools boycotting in some places—sets the stage for a 2015 that could see a quarter of a million opt-outs nationwide, according to estimates from testing reform advocates.

Even though test season officially begins in spring, the movement has accelerated through the first half of this school year. In Colorado, thousands of high school students spontaneously boycotted an extraneous and wasteful senior exam. In Oklahoma, first-grade teachers took on the state in opposition to a grueling new entrance test. A Florida kindergarten teacher took the first activist stand of her life, refusing to subject her students to a computerized exam; Florida soon dropped the test.

Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves. As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, "The whole school reform machine falls down without the data." Beyond wasting instructional time, standardized assessments serve to legitimize school closures, runaway charter expansion, and drastically narrowed curricula.

Testing activists predict that the number of opt-outs this coming spring could easily triple last year’s tally. As one parent told me, “This year it’s going to be a full-on revolt.”

3. Testing Proponents Retreat

In the face of heightened opposition, some of the most prominent advocates of testing have finally scaled back their goals—at least rhetorically. Bill Gates, whose foundation bankrolled the birth, development, marketing and deployment of the Common Core standards, has publicly endorsed a two-year delay on using new tests to evaluate teachers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose policies have ushered in one of the greatest expansions in standardized testing in American history, notoriously lamented that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the classroom.”

Beyond these high-profile nods to retreat, states and districts are quietly turning down the volume on testing policies. Chicago third-graders won’t need to take Common Core-aligned tests this year. Two Colorado districts have formally requested to be exempted from new exams. The Portland, Oregon school district has refused to comply with state-mandated test benchmarks. And Virginia and Kansas both pushed to reduce the number of tests students take (Virginia succeeded; Kansas was stymied by the feds).

In the most telling sign of testing pushback, states have abandoned their commitments to new Common Core-aligned standardized tests in droves. As blogger Mercedes Schneider finds, the Pearson-produced PARCC test, a computer assessment developed with a massive $186 million federal grant, has seen more than half of its original 26 member states drop out.

As Congress moves closer to updating the aging No Child Left Behind Act, which enshrined annual assessments for grades 3-8, legislators will no doubt continue to feel the influence of parents and students who are keen on reducing the federal testing burden.

4. Charter School Corruption Revealed

In North Carolina, a non-profit charter school is revealed to be funneling its budget into a for-profit firm with a nearly identical board. In Hartford, the FBI subpoenas a charter operator suspected of squirreling away public monies and employing a sex offender. An Ohio grand jury indicts four charter officials for allegedly receiving bribes and kickbacks.

That’s just a tiny sampling of the scandals that have roiled the charter sector this year. Over the past two decades, charter schools have grown from a handful in Minnesota to a sprawling system serving over 2.5 million kids. In that time, scrutiny over the peculiarly public-private arrangement has also grown, reaching a fever pitch this year.

Newspapers in Florida and Michigan launched year-long investigations into charters, revealing a largely unregulated and corruption-prone sector that takes in billions a year from taxpayers. “State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools,” the Detroit Free Press found. “Unchecked charter-school operators are exploiting South Florida’s public school system,” reported the Sun-Sentinel. “Virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity.”

This kind of systemic corruption occurs most often in deep-red states with regulation-averse lawmakers, and particularly where charter operators are allowed to draw profits, as in Ohio and Michigan. But charter impropriety pervades even more tightly regulated spaces like New York City, where a Daily News investigation found charters paying millions in exorbitant fees to for-profit middlemen. A report on charter corruption in Philadelphia found that despite “complex, multi-layered systems of oversight,” charter school leaders “have defrauded at least $30 million intended for Pennsylvania schoolchildren since 1997.”

It’s increasingly clear that these scandals aren’t just the work of isolated bad actors, they’re symptomatic of the very structure of charter schools, where public money is whisked into private hands, with necessarily less oversight and accountability. Increasingly, the mainstream press is taking note of this reality.

5. TFA Resistance Hits Deep

Since 2013, the perennial low-grade rumble of criticism toward Teach for America has grown into a roar. Though alumni griping is nothing new (see Dana Goldstein's Teacher Wars for an early history of TFA resistance), the organization has never faced such a sustained and vocal challenge as it is does now.

A spate of bad press and withering open letters in the last few years gave way to districts like Pittsburgh rejecting TFA outright. Well-organized counter recruitment efforts by Students United for Public Education and the campus activist group USAS put TFA on its heels. The latter even won a sit-down with TFA top brass, demanding that TFA stop placing teachers in districts undergoing layoffs, better prepare its recruits and cut its less savory corporate ties.

Establishment reformers wagged their fingers at the upstart critics, but to the surprise of many, Goliath flinched. In the spring, TFA's co-CEOs put on a sort of hand-waving apologia about change and growth, broadcast live as part of an effort to cast the organization as “evolving.” They promised to pilot programs that would lengthen the standard five-week training time and encourage corps members to stick around after two years. (The organization has also addressed longtime criticisms of its demographic makeup, laudably diversifying its corps, though not nearly to the levels host cities like Chicago and New Orleans enjoyed before TFA and its ilk first came galloping in.)

But the most dramatic changes came this fall. In December, the co-CEOs divulged that they might miss their recruitment mark by 25 percent, due in large part to "an increasingly polarized public conversation." Even more surprisingly, TFA revealed it would be folding its New York training site (where this writer once spent five weeks becoming a provisionally certified educator). Again, the organization cited “a contentious national dialogue around education and teaching in general, and TFA in particular.”

Yet despite these developments, TFA’s core function remains the same. As long as the organization continues sending thousands of minimally trained, increasingly non-unionized and generally flighty teachers into low-income communities, it should expect the resistance movement to grow.

6. Journey for Justice in Newark

One of the most dramatic education showdowns this year arose in Newark, New Jersey, where a state-backed reform plan promoted by hard-driving superintendent Cami Anderson and Gov. Chris Christie has met some of the stiffest community pushback in recent memory.

Dubbed “One Newark,” the plan had its genesis in the $100 million gift lavished on school reformers by Mark Zuckerberg and company in 2010. One Newark would help drive students into a ballooning charter sector that is set to eat up fully 40% of district budgets by 2016, closing several public schools while turning others over directly to charter operators.

After 17 years of ineffectual state control, the community rose up, with protests breaking out across the district. The Newark Students Union staged walkouts, blocked intersections and interrupted state meetings. Superintendent Anderson remained undaunted. “While we have certainly faced our challenges,” she said recently, “we are not going to stop."

Meanwhile, parents from affected schools joined a multi-state Title VI civil rights complaint, alleging that the school closure plans disparately impacted black students. In June, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced it had opened an investigation into the complaint.

“I see the destruction of public education in Newark,” parent Sharon Smith told me in the spring. Smith was among the signatories to the complaint. That fear is part of what led Newark residents to elect Ras Baraka mayor in May 2014. A high school principal, Baraka distinguished himself as an uncompromising critic of Anderson’s reforms. Though he has little control over the schools now, he sounds a message of hope. "We have the capacity to turn schools around," he told me before the election. "We don’t have to close them down."

7. Tech Boondoggles Crumble

The existing K-12 education technology market was valued at $8 billion at the start of 2014, a total projected to rise exponentially in coming years. The sector’s growing profit opportunities have attracted entrants large and small, many of them promising eagerly to transform the very heart of education.

Yet in the last year, two of the highest-profile ed-tech initiatives have turned to ashes: the New York-based inBloom (a data-collection venture) and Los Angeles’s much reported public school iPad deal.

From its beginnings, inBloom attracted scrutiny, both for its business connections and its expansive project: logging, tracking and sharing every public school student’s complete educational profile in an array spanning over 400 data pointsThe nonprofit launched with $100 million in seed funding from the Gates Foundation and was developed in part by Amplify, the for-profit education arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. But privacy advocates questioned the inclusion of data like discipline records and whether students had foster parents, and they also found inBloom’s approach to sharing data with third-party vendors suspect. Opposition to inBloom grew throughout 2013, culminating in the announcement in April 2014 that inBloom would be folding.

Whereas coordinated parent action toppled inBloom, the architects of Los Angeles’ iPad deal fell on their own swords. In June 2013, Superintendent John Deasy announced a massive $30 million initiative to equip every kid with an Apple tablet pre-loaded with programs designed by Pearson. A school board member called it “one of the most high-profile contracts this board will ever approve…as big as they come.”

Suspicions of foul play were confirmed in December of this year when the FBI seized district documents relating to the sale. As it turns out, the superintendent (who sanctimoniously recused himself from voting on the iPad deal in 2013, citing a stake in Apple stock) had begun meeting with officials from Apple and Pearson over a year before the bidding process began. A subsequent review found the bidding process itself rigged to the point of outright corporate favoritism. The superintendent resigned in October. 

The Power of People’s Movements

Just as the surge in charter school scandals shows, ed-tech itself is not the corrupting factor here. What corrupts are the massive pools of potential profit lurking just below the surface of public education. Wherever private interests enter into the public education sphere, the probability of malfeasance rises.

In 2015, with statehouses and Congress at their most Republican in generations, efforts to roll back regulations and slice off portions of the public school system for private profit will almost certainly increase. And yet, the power of people’s movements that erupted in 2014 shows no sign of abating. In many ways, 2014 served as a wake-up call around issues of educational justice; the dangers of privatization, the persistence of segregation and the ubiquity of standardized testing all came strikingly to the fore. What happens in 2015 will determine whether those lessons took hold.

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