American Federation for Children applauds federal efforts to advance parental choice

Washington, D.C. (Jan. 28, 2014) – The American Federation for Children, the nation’s voice for educational choice, applauds Sens. Lamar Alexander (R – TN) and Tim Scott (R – SC) for demonstrating their continued support of educational choice and increasing opportunities for children in need. Both Senators have announced federal legislation to foster the expansion of school choice in states and promote educational equality.

“Education is truly the best equalizer in our society and the most effective way to foster equal opportunity in our country is to give every child access to excellent educational options,” said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children. “I applaud the measures introduced by Sens. Alexander and Scott today and their efforts to give more children the opportunity to attend schools best suited to their needs.”

Seeking to expand the educational marketplace, Alexander’s Scholarships for Kids Act would allow states the option of using nearly $24 billion in existing federal funds to create scholarships, giving 11 million low-income children the opportunity to attend a public or private school of their parent’s choice. Instead of funding school districts or federal programs, these $2,100 scholarships will go directly to children who fit the federal definition of poverty, helping those who need it most.

“The Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals or Communities through Education, or CHOICE Act proposed by Scott allows federal dollars generated by children with disabilities to follow these children to the school that their parents deem best for them. The legislation would allow states to access $11 billion in federal funding authorized through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to follow 6 million children with disabilities to the school of their family’s choice. The bill also would also make improvements to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and would create a military scholarship pilot program to ensure quality educational options for children who live on military bases and have less opportunity for choice.”



The American Federation for Children is the nation’s leading school choice advocacy organization and works in states across the country to help secure additional, high-quality educational options for families.

Betsy DeVos is the chairman of the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice. For more than 20 years, Betsy has worked tirelessly to expand educational options for children, especially those from low-income families. Betsy is a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, entrepreneur, business owner, and mother of four children and grandmother of two.

Tennessee Looks To Transform Failing Schools

“MEMPHIS, TENN. • In a Mississippi River town where poverty and academic failure have been hallmarks of urban schools for decades, an experiment is underway that could transform how Missouri and other states approach one of the biggest puzzles in education.

Some of the worst schools in this city have been plucked from the control of the local school board and placed under the oversight of the state.

They include schools such as Aspire Hanley Elementary, a source of pride in the southeast Memphis neighborhood of Orange Mound, where parents said they had been unaware of the school’s academic decline until the takeover announcement in late 2012. Last fall, the campus was given over to a California charter school operator that has delivered smaller class sizes, the school’s first playground and the belief that academics are improving.

The approach is predicated on the controversial assumption that chronic school failure demands a state, rather than a local, response — even if that means usurping elected local control of education.

In Tennessee, the approach takes selected bottom-ranked schools and places them into what’s known as the Achievement School District. Its superintendent reports to the state education commissioner. The district operates some schools directly and matches most others with nonprofit charter school operators.

The goal is to catapult the lowest achieving schools to the state’s top 25 percent within five years by using methods that are sometimes fiercely resisted by teachers’ unions, such as frequent testing and performance pay for teachers.

Tennessee is among a growing handful of states that are experimenting with what’s called portfolio management: when a single entity oversees a diverse collection of schools with a wide array of operators. Control is decentralized, leaving most decisions to educators in schools rather than central office administrators. Operators who fail to demonstrate test score gains after a few years are removed and replaced.

In so doing, the state is chasing an elusive notion in education reform — the hope that not just a few struggling schools, but an entire system of schools, can succeed.

“The stakes are pretty high in what we’re trying to do,” said Chris Barbic, the Achievement District’s superintendent, who founded the high-performing YES charter schools in Houston.

Missouri soon may be no longer just a spectator of this reform effort. A consultant’s proposal presented last week to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education bears some similarities to the Tennessee model.

But it also has distinct differences. Rather than merely giving control of a failing district to a state oversight board — like Missouri did in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens — the proposal calls for abolishing districts entirely once they receive the state’s worst performance rating.

State-run offices would be created in their place to oversee the schools, directly running them at first. The offices would select nonprofit groups to run them long term, under the theory that charter school operators and other organizations could bring innovation to schools where district leaders have not.

It’s one of several plans that would amplify Missouri’s approach to troubled school districts. The issue became even more urgent last summer, after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer statute. More than 2,200 students in the unaccredited districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens have transferred to higher performing schools in the region, leaving the two districts in north St. Louis County buckling under a collective $30 million in tuition and transportation costs.

Meanwhile, district officials are struggling to improve academics for the 3,000 children still attending school in Normandy, and 4,100 in Riverview Gardens.

“We need to think about how to rescue those kids,” said Peter Herschend, president of the Missouri Board of Education, during a meeting last week in Jefferson City. “Not how to rescue a district, not how to rescue a teacher or superintendent.”

But as Tennessee has learned, before such a rescue can take place, educators must figure out how to convince parents and communities to accept a radically different approach.


In Orange Mound, a scruffy community of small bungalows that was developed by and built for African-Americans in the late 1800s, there was resistance when residents learned the state would take control of Hanley Elementary.

A billboard soon went up at a nearby intersection in protest. People spoke up at hearings and in churches.

“There were various opinions about the motivations behind it,” said Mary Mitchell, a lifelong Orange Mound resident and community historian. “Was this just a political move, or would it impact the children so they could be the best students in the country?”

Failure to fully win over the community at the outset has led to missteps. At Cornerstone Prep, the charter school’s leaders changed the school name and school colors without parent or neighborhood input. Parents later complained of a cultural disconnect at their school, and that students weren’t being treated properly.

When parents at Hanley learned that an out-of-state charter school operator would be coming in, “It caused me to start raising questions,” said Teresena Wright, whose daughter with special needs is now a second-grader at the school. “I didn’t know how my voice would be heard. I didn’t know where to begin.”

Aspire — the nonprofit organization that now runs the school — spent months seeking community support. It flew parents to California to see its schools there. It held a parent pampering day with free manicures and massages in the school gym. Its Memphis staff knocked on doors at apartment complexes, visited churches, held barbecues and spoke at meetings.

The school now has a parent resource center, where parents and grandparents can volunteer and access educational opportunities for themselves.

“I now see the needs in our black community in education being met from the ground up,” said Marlene Henderson, the guardian of a kindergartner, visiting with grandparents in the center one morning.

Parents who are unhappy with Aspire Hanley are free to move their children to open enrollment charter schools or district schools.

But there is a concerted effort to keep them where they are.

Critics of charter schools often charge that they don’t educate the same children as district schools, that they “cream” the population by discouraging special needs children and other challenged kids from applying.

In the Achievement District, all of the charter schools are neighborhood schools that have inherited the existing district’s student body.

“We need to be serving the exact same kids, the same issues,” Barbic said. “If we’re going to beat our chest about how great we are, we have to do it under the same conditions as the district.”


Tennessee used $22 million from a larger federal grant from the Race to the Top program to create the Achievement District. The district’s 22 administrators work out of three trailers in the backyard of Whitney Elementary School.” – By Elisa Crouch

Read the full article here.

BYOD: Why Students Should Be Allowed To Choose Their Devices

“Standardization vs. Real Life

A lot of schools make the mistake of trying to control every aspect of technology integration. Students want to choose their own device and not have something mandated and regulated. When you consider that 38 percent of U.S. children under age two have used an iPad, iPhone or iPod, there is an expectation that as these students move through school, they’ll have some type of device in hand. What’s more, students will want to use something that they’re familiar with, that they own, and that they won’t have to change out of once they leave school.

The best analogy is the case for school uniforms, which has always sparked a debate regardless of the decade or century. Schools tell students what they have to wear, and students do it. Research and data drive the decision, and it just happens. However, once students leave school, they want their identity back. The same can be said for technology in schools. Yes, homogenization of devices allows everyone the chance to start out on the same footing, but eventually schools need to open up and let students own the device and, inevitably, own their learning.” – Andrew Marcinek


Guest: There’s no shame in being an education reformer

I want to set the record straight and encourage other education reformers like me to speak out, writes guest columnist Kimberly Lasher Mitchell.

By Kimberly Lasher Mitchell

Special to The Times

I AM a former student and current parent of children in Seattle Public Schools. During my 23-year career in education, I have worked as a public schoolteacher and principal in the U.S. and abroad. I believe public schools are the foundation of any democracy.

Regardless of the depth of my experiences or how nuanced my beliefs are, however, when I reveal that I was once a Teach for America corps member and a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I receive a curious reaction from the Seattle community; I am immediately suspected of being an “education reformer.”

Judging by the fierce debates in the recent Seattle School Board races, the term “education reform” seems to be looked upon with deep suspicion. It is disheartening to hear how polarized, angry and even anti-intellectual the debates about education reform and reformers have become. The tone of these debates is counterproductive and does not bring us together as a community to address the toughest issues we face in education.

I accept that I am an education reformer, though I feel the term has been maligned. I want to set the record straight and encourage others like me to speak out.

Contrary to what you might read, education reformers are not all wealthy philanthropists. They are not pushing a corporate agenda to dismantle public education. They do not want to turn students and teachers into test-obsessed automatons. They are not anti-teacher.

If anything, what they are is way too quiet.Education reformers have allowed a small group of people to control the debates and misrepresent their views and experiences.

What are the views of education reformers? The most important, perhaps, is that they strive to make decisions based on solid research, not conjecture. The preponderance of data clearly demonstrates that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement. This is not to say that other factors do not matter — just not as much. Great teaching trumps everything else: curriculum, technology, even class size.

Education reformers agree on putting the needs of children before adults. They believe that a principal should have a say in which teachers are assigned to his or her school community. They feel schools should be able to hold on to their most talented staff regardless of seniority when layoffs occur.

Education reformers also think that teachers deserve much better. Teachers deserve exceptional training, frequent feedback and high-quality professional development. They deserve time to collaborate, plan and assess their students’ learning. Education reformers believe those who work with teachers should be instructionally well-versed and use a variety of measures, including student performance, before making judgments on teacher performance (as opposed to using a test or a 20-minute observation once a year).

Thousands of teachers who identify themselves as education reformers have come together across the country to activate their voices. In Washington state, Teachers United draws upon the collective wisdom and experience of our state’s public schoolteachers to inform policy, testify before the Legislature and make recommendations to school boards.

The rhetoric against education reform cites the influence of corporate-backed funding. It is true that many education reform initiatives are supported by wealthy philanthropists and foundations. However, their combined contributions are a drop in the bucket compared with what governments and unions spend. In fact, total philanthropic spending amounts to only one-third of 1 percent of total K-12 spending.

While we may disagree on the solutions, I know we as a community share a sense of urgency about how to provide a consistently excellent public school experience for every child.

Doing so, however, will require a much more robust and open-minded conversation. Seattle is known for its progressive approach to human rights, environmental stewardship and marijuana, yet it maintains a rather parochial view on education. Our region’s students and their parents deserve a balanced and informed explanation by those of us who support education reform.

Seattle resident Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is co-founder of Inquiry Partners, a professional development and education consulting firm.

Link to the original article:



Teacher appreciation week: Mr. Turner

As we come to the end of Teacher Appreciation week I want to share some thoughts on my favorite teacher. I am sure that we all have one or more teachers who greatly influenced our life and the person we are today.  On this teacher appreciation week, my mind goes back to my high school history teacher, Mr. Bernard Turner.

In school I didn’t care for him too much, because he was very strict on all his students. However, he instilled in me a desire to learn more about how our country was founded and the many struggles it has faced in it’s short history. But he made history come alive in my mind, and in college I majored in history and obtained my bachelors degree in it.

Fortunately, I was able to thank him for his work before his passing a few years ago. As I walk the halls of our state capitol talking to legislators about the need to improve our educational system- I think of Mr. Turner. We need more teachers like him to inspire and motivate the next generation of leaders for our state and country.

Thank you Mr. Turner.

-Joe Knodell