Saturday, February 9, 2019


The Children Are Watching

The state of Texas is threatening to “take over” the Houston Independent School District and its schools. The threat first came because several Houston ISD schools had persistently low scores on state tests, thus triggering sanctions that included possible closing of those schools or outsourcing them to charter chains or other organizations outside the democratic governance of the elected school board. More recently, the state has threatened to “take over” the entire district, dissolving the elected school board and installing some kind of appointed manager or management team not elected by or accountable to voters.

Such a “take over” would not solve the persistent problems in the Houston school district.  In fact, there is strong evidence such a move would effectively destroy the public’s schools.

In short, the State that has starved our schools can’t be trusted to run them.

We know from cities where state neglect and predatory privatizers have instigated such ‘take overs” that dissolving or over-riding elected school boards diminishes the possibility of improved educational quality and sets in motion factors that (often by design) decrease academic quality and increase inequality within and across schools.  New Orleans, Detroit, Washington DC are but the starkest examples.

We also have clear evidence that Texas in particular – whether through the Texas Education Agency or other state or out-sourcing entity – cannot be trusted to ensure children’s well-being.  The state’s history of neglect, failed oversight, underfunding, and outright non-compliance with legal mandates proves its lack of capacity and expertise to manage, much less improve, its largest urban school district.  Even more obvious is the state’s flagrant, careless disregard for official requirements for children under its jurisdiction.

Two prominent and contemporary examples make my case: 

First, thousands of children in need of special services have been denied those services and the diagnostic examinations needed to determine those needs by state policies capping “special needs” at roughly 8% of any school district’s child population. Diligent investigative reporting uncovered this policy by following the stories of families willing to make public their struggles to find help for their children.  Many were told year after year their children’s physical disabilities, cognitive limitations or other conditions were just evidence of “slowness” or “not trying hard enough” or not the school’s responsibility. The reporting traced these stories through interviews with current and retired special education administrators, and teachers who had tried in vain to get kids tested, across a number of school districts.  What emerged was a strong directive from the state that no more than 8% of children should be classified by – and thus served by – special needs accommodations. Never mind that federal law requires that each child that needs one have an individually prepared education plan (an IEP) and that it be followed.  The state --- TEA officials – denied putting forth such a directive.    Lawsuits, courts, new pronouncements from the governor’s office, and a meek attempt at legislation add up to a sad combination of further denials, promises to do better, and some new policies which we hope will be diligently enforced.   If there has been compensation to the thousands of children who have missed out on the early interventions and sustained programs which would have helped them develop to their full potential, that hasn’t been made public.   Experts estimate that in urban districts with high poverty (and well as centralized medical facilities) as many as 12-13% percent of children have special needs that qualify for state and federal support.  These children and their families have trusted the state at their peril.  Not a good track record for taking over the education of 200,000 Houston students.

Children’s Protective Services provides further evidence of the state’s inability – or unwillingness – to act ethically on behalf of its children.    The foster care system, perennially underfunded and understaffed, “loses” children from time to time and fails to provide robust, supportive care for many of those that do have family placements.   The record is stark, is continuous, and is another  example of careless disregard for the weakest youth in our state.   Revelations of serious problems unearthed by investigative reporters were followed by promises by the governor for more funding to hire additional and better trained case managers and assurances of special legislative action.  None has been adequate.  None of the actions have matched the urgency of need.

The Houston Independent School District needs adequate funding.   It needs an experienced educator for superintendent, one with the vision of equity and educational excellence begun under the brief tenure of Superintendent Carranza.   It needs a state funding formula that does not require giving local tax dollars to other districts to compensate them for their own lack of adequate state funding.  It needs to overcome the system of management by fear and intimidation that was the pride of the last permanent superintendent.  And it needs its currently elected school board to rise above the embarrassing pettiness made public in several open school board meetings and a recently revealed informal session.  (The state is investigating whether certain actions taken by several members of this board violated the open meetings act; a stupid thing to do if true. I’m equally concerned that the board’s on-the-record talk stayed completely personal with NO MENTION –  or at least none in the newspaper account – of a commitment to an educational vision for the district as a whole, for particular schools or children, for the role of teachers.)

The answer is for parents and teachers and friends of education (and yes, students – think of the Parkland students and the leadership groups they inspired in Houston around gun safety) to demand this board put the children ahead of their own personal quarrels. 

The board needs to build common cause with its employees, especially with teachers, with parents and students, with those sectors of the business community that aren’t in the pocket of the privatizers, with the faith leaders like Pastors for Texas Children, with community groups -- to take on the state, not cede authority to it!  Why doesn’t Houston ISD lead the other urban districts in demanding this legislative session pass full funding for Texas schools?  With compensatory funding for those districts most needing to make up for past starvation-level funding for salaries and facilities?

From other so-called “take overs” we know the State is not always a friend of the public’s schools. Too often the state’s role is to grab power – and funding – from local elected boards and hand it over to the charter chains and “education management” companies that are not in any way accountable to voters or parents.   We know the privatizers are circling – new charter chain offices are opening in our city and their billionaire backers are writing the checks to establish their foothold.  We can’t let them have our tax dollars – or our kids.

So, no to a state take over. No to out-sourcing our kids.  Yes, to speaking out, speaking up, demanding this board get its act together until we can elect a new one.  

If you care about the future of our schools, the public's schools, and the children, then seek out kindred spirits whose informed activism needs you.  Community Voices for Public Schools invites you to their meeting coming up on February 16.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

School Blames Sick 2nd Grader for Funding Shortages

Or, Principal Sends Obscene Memo to Parents
Or, The Memo I Can't Show You

The Children Are Watching 

Well, maybe not obscene in the way you may be thinking, but definitely not up to “the moral standards of the community.” How else to describe a note to parents accusing them of costing the school money by keeping a sick child at home?

The color-coded form bears the name of the school and the ominous opening line: “To the parents of __[our second-grader]_____________.” Then, “We are sending this letter to inform you that your child has missed ______ days of school so far for the 2018-2019 school year.” Presumably something the parents of a 7-year-old would be aware of.

Then the real message: “Our average daily attendance drives our school budget….Every day your child is in school, we earn about $20 for our school budget.” Then a sentence claiming that as of mid-January of this school year, the school has “lost” tens of thousands of dollars due to student absences. “If a child is absent (excused or unexcused) we lose funding.”

That the child also loses a day of instruction seems added as an after-thought. The form is signed by the principal.

When I first saw this memo, sent to me by the child’s parent, its pre-printed format looked to be an official document of the school district, something I’d post here so you should it see for yourselves and not think I was making this up! But in checking with teachers at other schools, which I do when a school policy seems too absurd to be real, I learned that to their knowledge, the district requires no such message to parents. One elementary math teacher said it best, “We certainly don’t want sick children to come to school.” Neither does the CDC. Neither does the American Pediatric Association. Nor public health officials at all levels. Only keeping hands washed ranks above staying away from others is promoted as sound disease prevention.

What’s missing here? First, any concern or compassion and offer to help the child learn what she might have missed while she was out sick.

Even more obviously omitted is any message that parents and teachers – and this principal – need to join together to fight for full, adequate, equitable funding for the schools. The idea that school attendance “drives our budget” is ridiculous. There was a time when school funding, especially the state’s share, was based on a school’s enrollment; enrollments were set by the number of
students enrolled as of a certain arbitrarily chosen day, usually in October. Not a perfect formula, but one that stayed stable over the school year. A shift to dollars-per-daily attendance mocks the vagaries of childhood illnesses, flu season itself, and parents’ good-faith compliance with pediatric and public health directives, to say nothing of the factors like poverty, lack of transportation, or language barriers that directly impact children's ability to come to school.  Blaming the children instead of the legislature, the governor and lieutenant governor, the drastic cuts by a previous governor (you, Rick Perry) which have never been fully restored, and more recently the millions drained from the public’s schools by the charter chains – absurd, undemocratic, and anti-child. I can only imagine how a less informed parent, or a parent new to American schools,  would feel on getting this notice: “your child is costing us money! Is she really, really, really sick enough to stay home?” Would your child face punishment? Your family maybe be billed for the $20?

When will educators and parents place the blame where it belongs? When will we all join in common cause to demand the funding our schools need for all our children to learn and for all our children and families to thrive? For all our teachers to do their best work? And for administrators to say no to harsh, degrading policies that undermine their good judgment?

We're seeing this courage around the country: Families and students joined to support LA teachers who walked out in strike on their behalf. Teachers in very red states, with no union protection, walked out to demand living wages for themselves and instructionally-sound funding for their schools. Texas teachers have for too long taken scarcity for granted. And now their principals, afraid of the “accountability” calculus that punishes them for children’s absences, shift the blame to the youngest, the sickest, the least powerful: the children. We’ve seen this in the harmful effects of the testing system, with the children who don’t test well blamed for low school ratings and even school closings. Struggling learners triaged out as liabilities to their school ratings. Now the sick kids get the blame for the state’s failure to fund our schools?  The state's refusal to fund them abundantly, in proportion to the state’s incredible wealth? The state whose economy is said to be the world’s 10th largest?

You see now why I call the bright yellow memo obscene: if it does reflect our communities’ shared moral standards, we are in deep trouble. And so are the children.

Here are links to bills currently before the Texas legislature this very session TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK and to the House and Senate legislative committees charged with funding, sustaining, and protecting our public schools. And if you’re a principal or school board member or PTO president, why not hold an information session for parents to learn how our schools are funded, and under-funded, and which state officials have the power to make changes. Do it now, while the legislature is in session!

They need to hear from you: the children are watching.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Institutional Mourning: Chicago School Closings and the Supreme Court

The Children Are Watching

In 2013 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 49 public schools at one time.   “Bad schools,” “failing schools” according to the official justifications.  More than 80% of the children in these schools were African American.  The schools anchored their communities, held the histories, centered the stories.  None of that mattered to the bureaucrats who saw only test scores and “underutilized” classrooms:  numbers silent on the things that matter in educating our children.

What happens when a public school is closed?  What happens to the students, the teachers, the families, the neighborhood when the public’s school is shuttered?  We know that the children are scattered to schools out of the neighborhood; families who can, move away; shops close, and property values begin to decline.  That decline not a side effect or “unintended consequence” of the school closure but a key part of the strategy of real estate “developers” complicit in politicians’ claims to improve education by closing “failing schools,” reducing the costs of big money moving in to “gentrify” with shiny new, and newly unaffordable, condos and apartments.  Public school closures are also central to the business plans of corporate charter chains and their investors, often given the keys to now vacant school buildings or tax breaks to come into the now open “education market.” Professional, experienced teachers who know the children and the community are let go, usually replaced by novice, often unlicensed, and markedly less expensive adults to oversee classrooms (most not yet teachers by any stretch of the definition).

The record is clear:  closing public schools does not improve the children’s learning, does not enhance the teaching profession, does not contribute to healthy neighborhoods and thriving communities.   If we know all this, why is it still happening despite impassioned, strategic, collective resistance by parents, teachers, and their neighbors?

Eve L. Ewing tells us in her startling and essential new book:  Ghosts in the Schoolyard:  Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.  Ewing lives in Chicago and grew up on Chicago’s South Side.  Ghosts is the story of a community in mourning when its school is closed, a community she knows well.

Ewing takes us to Bronzeville, seen by Chicago’s elite business and political class as poverty and deprivation, but lived by its residents as the legacy of a rich history with vibrant possibility.

Bronzeville is special.  "Beginning about twenty blocks south of downtown Chicago… the region occupies a single place as Chicago’s historic hub of African American culture: …the destination of thousands of migrants…from southern states during the Great Migration and home to luminaries such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks."

Ewing taught school in Bronzeville and grew up nearby.  She is not a neutral observer.  Her book documents the “dueling realities” of the school board’s cold reliance on numbers – and the then-superintendent’s claims the schools should be closed because they are “under-resourced,” with no acknowledgment that she is the official who can remedy that inequitable condition: she controls the resources!

Ewing then brings us the stories:  the voices of students, teachers, parents, and their allies who speak eloquently of loss, of powerlessness, of shock.  None of what they value is valued by the officials so arbitrarily and callously selecting schools to close.  Racism is a prime motivation that Ewing does not hesitate to document and call out herself and in the voices of those she interviews.  Greed, real estate grabs, and power are not veiled –even by the powerful themselves.

The book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the public’s schools, the centrality of neighborhood schools to democracy and any possibility we have for achieving equity and justice for America’s children.  Buy the book, send a copy to your local school board, send copies to your state board of education and to anyone who thinks “failing schools” are the fault of the schools, not the officials who govern them.

For me the message goes beyond even policy:  the most powerful chapter is “Mourning.”  Ewing, herself an artist and celebrated poet, brings her poetic voice and unique insights as a South Side native to a deep understanding of the nature of loss when a school is closed.  She eloquently describes what she calls “institutional mourning.”  The students and their parents, the teachers who have lost their jobs and their connections to their students – all talk of the closing of the school as a death.  An inalterable loss.   The generations of family members who went to the school are seen as being erased, along with the many stories – happy, sad, silly, perilous, hopeful stories – that get told and re-told when former students re-connect, when families get together.   The lives and legacies of Black civic leaders, artists, writers, educators for whom the schools were named are lost as well, purging a community of pride, accomplishment, elders and identity.

For Ewing, and those she listened to, the loss is not just the school as an institution.  She says the loss of an institution is also the loss of who we were when that institution was with us.  We mourn the building, the activities, the classes, the actions on the playground.   But the “ghosts” aren’t just the names of favorite teachers now gone or class rolls of students; they are us – the “we” – who we were as a part of the life of that institution, a life before and after our presence there.  A source of shared identity and common good gone.  School closings are an erasure.   Careless or deliberate?  Racist or merely thoughtless?  For Ewing there is no question: erasures are continuous with Jim Crow, with legal discriminations old and new, with cultural destruction.  She asks “Is there room for democracy and real grassroots participation in a school system that has been run like an oligarchy?”   If school closings and other policy decisions are framed as “what is the history that has brought us to this moment?,” then the questions of “who gets to decide?” and “how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” are more likely to shape the decisions.   That is the hope she holds out, the reason she wrote this book as a re-framing.

Institutional mourning.  It turns out I needed these words.  I was reading this book as the US Senate was voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  Ewing spoke to me in that moment as I was seeing the highest court of the United States, the court whose rulings carry no mechanism for appeal, be in a sense “closed” to the American public.   A man widely criticized for questionable application of the law and selective use of “facts” in his rulings in his current judgeship, a man deemed by his own law school professors as unfit for the higher court, and a man with a record of sexual misconduct was being confirmed to fill a seat on the nation’s highest court.

We can’t romanticize the Court as always – or even mostly – fair and wise and just.   The most recent court gutted the Voting Rights Act and opened political campaigns to uncounted floods of cash with already dire consequences in voter suppression and “dark money.” And it declared corporations as “persons” with religious beliefs (what could be more absurd?).   So, no, the Court has not been perfect.

But the addition of Kavanaugh to the bench feels like a certain kind of death for the court:  the death of hope that the Court will any time soon restore voting rights, challenge big campaign money, protect our fragile environment, protect workers’ rights and everyone’s health.    Like many Americans, I was feeling ill during every minute of those hearings.  It was Eve Ewing who helped me understand what I was feeling:  I was mourning the Supreme Court for what it has been at its best and for a best it would now not likely return to in my lifetime.  Mourning an institution that I can recall as affirming the highest goals of our democracy, an institution whose “ghosts” are not only good justices from the past, but the plaintiffs and attorneys of the future who will search its halls for a standard of justice that, like the shuttered schools of Chicago’s South Side, may be systematically erased.

Ewing’s book keeps the schools alive in the stories shared and keeps alive a hope for the neighborhood in the strength of organizing and challenging entrenched power.  Turning mourning into action even when hope seems illusory.  Thank you, Eve Ewing, for helping me understand and for giving us a language for thinking about the ways our institutions shape us and carry --- or erase -- our identity as a people.

Friday, October 26, 2018

True Confessions (by Republicans, No Less!)

Despite all their invoking of religion and piety, I’ve never had high expectations that Republican politicians would confess to the errors of their ways or the damage they have caused to our country and the larger world.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, to my knowledge, never took responsibility for the irreparable harm their lies about weapons of mass destruction and their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan caused to those countries and their people, to US soldiers and the US treasury, to US credibility in the world, and to the destabilization of so many countries in that region that now literally millions of families have been displaced by war.  One might even add that the right-wing backlash throughout Europe against immigrants and refugees from mostly-Muslim Middle Eastern countries (too say nothing of the current US Muslim travel ban) can be traced back to the Bush-Cheney-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld-Rice-Powell-et-al wars-based-on-lies.  (No, I’m not nostalgic for W, even in the current political moment.)

I don’t think Jeb Bush has apologized for the damage he did to Florida’s public schools while he was governor, nor to other states’ schools with his expensive consulting and cheer-leading for charter chains.   Have any of the Republican governors who refused to expand Medicare under the Affordable Care Act apologized to the thousands of sick and disabled people in their states who remain uninsured, unable to get the medical care they need to heal?  Have the governors in Arizona and Oklahoma and West Virginia and Texas (you, Rick Perry) confessed to starving the public schools, crowding classrooms, cutting the arts and special services, forcing teachers to take second jobs?    Have any Republican members of Congress recanted their denial of global climate change and stepped up to sponsor urgent planet-saving legislation?

The list could go on. But you get the idea – Republican politicians tend not to connect their pious talk with humble, public confession when they do harm.   That’s why it’s so amazing to see Republican politicians – individually and as a party – openly confessing during the mid-term elections!  Their confession:

Our policies are so bad, and our candidates so wrong, that if everyone were allowed to vote, we would never win.  We win only when we decide who gets to vote.

And unlike some confessions that are just words, these Republican confessions are visible in their actions:   Many Republicans governors, secretaries of state and local officials around the country are doing everything they can to assure that if you’re not likely to vote for them, they’ll make sure you don’t get to vote at all.

Here’s how they’re doing it:

--Restricting the times and places for registering to vote
--Requiring photo ID to register and to vote
--Drastically reducing the number of polling places
--Moving polling places at the last minute (or to outside of town, Dodge City!)
--Sending out false notifications about voting locations and dates
--Not complying with state laws requiring voter registration in the high schools (yes, Texas, only 20% or so of our high schools are doing this and all our state officials are Republicans!)
--Purging registered voters from the rolls (especially if they are African American, Latinx, poor, or students, and especially if the official in charge of voter registration is running for office and thinks these are not his/her likely voters!)
--Limiting the number of days for early voting
--Holding up the processing of voter registrations (again, especially African American, Latinx, and student registrations – and especially if the official in charge of registrations is running for office)
--Restricting students’ voting where they go to college

And these are only the ones I know about; you may have other examples.

Voter suppression as Republican confession.  How embarrassing it must be (if they had shame) to have to publicly admit that your policies are so bad that you could not get elected if everyone who is eligible to vote was able to register and to vote?

The perversion of our election system in this current era began with the stopping of the vote count in Florida in 2000.  The Supreme Court, in a highly partisan and constitutionally unsupportable move, approved stopping the vote count that already showed the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, with more of the popular vote than George W.  Many of the enablers of that terrible moment in our democracy were generously rewarded (think, chief justice of the Supreme Court, Texas senator, etc.).   But that deligitimizing of the electoral process succeeded in breaking through the protections of the voting tradition.     Old rules need not apply.   Our democracy is at risk.

We can’t undo 2000. But we can, and must, work to restore the right so many struggled and even died for: the right to vote.   We can’t wait to see if Republicans' confession is followed by repentance and a change in their ways.  Their confession won’t be good for the soul (of democracy) until everyone can vote.  People have to believe their vote not only counts but is welcome and needed.

I need to know the system will be fair to them when I urge my students to register and get out there and vote!

Monday, September 17, 2018

200 Students, $50 to Spend

The thick envelope gave a hint of elegance inside.  An invitation.  Colorful graphics, fine card stock, strategically placed photographs, “bold face” names inside the folds of this multi-layered, professionally crafted solicitation.    A separate card, two-sided on high quality card stock, lists in bold contrasting colors the details of the events.  Also inside, a return envelope for the enclosed commitment card suggesting “underwriting opportunities” from a mere $500 to levels of $50,000 and $100,000. 

An invitation to a museum gala or symphony fund-raiser?   A call to join the restoration of our Harvey-flooded opera house?  The funding categories would seem to so suggest.

No, this was an invitation to a fund-raiser for a corporate charter school chain.  A private company that has added “public” to its name because it is one of the corporate entities that takes taxpayer dollars (the “public” part) to fund its schools.   

My first inclination was curiosity:  who are these people?  I looked over the names of the funders already listed on the invitation: the usual anti-public school billionaires, some names of really good people who should know better, and some people I didn’t recognize who probably have been sold on the idea that only by contributing to these charter chains can they save the city’s poor, minority children.

My next reaction was anger.  This invitation – fancy graphics, elegant card stock, thick white envelopes – was expensive!  Each one must have cost several dollars, even accounting for a bulk order discount. I turned each piece over to try to find the printing company that produced it. No designer or graphics company attributed, but a line that caught my eye:   contact the charter chain’s “manager of special events” for more information.   Really??

Manager of Special Events! I know of no public school, no neighborhood school, that has a manager of special events – much less the budget to hire one.  But they all could use that $100,000 for a long list of needs after years of underfunding.

Then I immediately knew the source of my anger: the inequity of it all.  These charter chains are privately incorporated, but they not only take our tax dollars out of our public schools – the public’s schools, but they may be using our tax dollars to pay their special events managers and printers to advertise against our public schools!  Our tax dollars enable their “marketing” in competition with the public’s own schools.   I took the invitation to a high-quality stationery store to ask if they had produced it and what it might have cost. The woman said they hadn’t produced it but confirmed it was definitely expensive and each would have cost “several dollars” even if, as I had suspected, several hundred or thousand had been printed and mailed out (yes, add the mailing costs).   And even if the printing had been donated by an individual or corporation, those dollars would still have been taken from our public schools as a tax-deductible, “charitable” contribution. 

So the first inequity is that all of these “contributions," from the modest $500 (mere seat at luncheon) to the ‘naming rights’ (I’m not making this up!) for donors giving $100,000,  all of these dollars end up subtracted from the public treasury.

The second inequity:  the costs of those invitations. I suddenly realized each one must cost more than many of our teachers have for school supplies and instructional materials on any given day.  So I asked some teachers.   A 7th-grade biology teacher new to her current school was hopeful:  “They say I’ll have the supplies I need for labs and we’ve ready sent in the order for frogs for the kids to dissect,  so we’ll see.  So far, so good.” 

The next answer was less optimistic:  “I’m told I have to require every student to bring a ream of copier paper; when that runs out we won’t get any more, so I’m trying to be careful to plan ahead.” From a high school teacher:  “No, we don’t get to buy paperbacks for our classrooms. We have some on hand but if we want to assign other titles, the kids have to buy their own.  If they can’t afford it, I see if I have an extra copy at home or maybe I just buy it for them.”

And this conversation with a high school English teacher:  

Teacher: “I get $50.00 to buy things I need for my teaching.”  

Me, somewhat seriously:  “Is that per student?  And is it for each semester or for the whole year?”  

Teacher: “It’s not per student. It’s all I get for the whole year.”  

Me (trying not to cry):  “And how many students do you have?”  

Teacher:  “Right now I have seven classes, ranging from 20-some students to more than 40, but they are trying to adjust the schedule so no teacher has more than the usual six classes.”  

Me, doing the math:  “So right now you have about $7.00 per class for the whole year? That will be a little more than $8.00 if you end up with six classes, but you’ll still have almost 200 students?”

Teacher:  “Yes.”

So, a charter chain with already enough money to have a special events manager on staff, already taking our public tax dollars, mails out invitations that each cost as much as one of our fine public school teachers has for her entire instructional budget for the year.

I’m preparing a series of posts on the damage these charter chains are doing to the public’s schools, to our goals of educational equity, to state and district education funding, and to our democracy.  I had thought I'd begin by re-iterating that regardless of the words in their name, these are private, not public organizations. Then my plan is to showcase the detailed new reports that follow the money behind these charters and the politicians being funded to enable them.  Then lots of examples, from California to Ohio, from Florida to Texas, of charter chains that move in and out of “markets,” often taking taxpayer dollars with them, often leaving kids and their families stranded and – of course – leaving the public’s schools, now lacking the money taken out by charters, to welcome and educate those same kids.  

Lots to report on.  Lots of news stories, scholarly analyses and first-hand accounts.   I just didn’t anticipate finding a piece of fancy and compelling evidence in my mail slot!    Stay tuned for my new series:  Grand Theft Schoolhouse.  And send me your examples of the impact of charter chains on your schools.

Friday, September 14, 2018

“KidLit” Authors Taking a Stand for Children

The Children are Watching

Children’s books are the best! The children in my family – and my friends’ families – always know that their gift from Aunt Linda will include at least one new book.  When a sticker on The Very Hungry Caterpillar announced "over a million copies sold,” one of my daughters asked, “Mom, how many copies of that book have you bought?!”

Well, not a million, but from Corduroy to Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and Snuggle Puppy (and of course Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance), there is nothing like a wonderful children’s book to give music to a hug, pause to a tantrum, and rhythm to picking up toys or rocking to sleep. 

If the writers and illustrators of books for toddlers and big kids did nothing but write and draw and paint, they should be honored with statues in town squares (in front of the library!) and boisterous parades of grateful parents and inspired children.

But “KidLit” writers are doing more: they are standing up for children. They are marching with children.  A compelling article in the September 7 New York Times by Maria Russo tells the story of writers taking action:

“When photos began circulating of migrant children separated from their parents and placed in what looked like giant cages in detention centers, the young adult novelists Melissa del la Cruz and Margaret Stohl had an immediate response.”  They texted several other author friends and drafted a statement denouncing such practices  that “should be restricted to the pages of dystopian novels.”  They gathered thousands of signatures of writers of children’s books and raised nearly $240,000 for legal services assisting the migrant children and their families.

Children’s book writers had already organized “KidLit Marches for Kids,” encouraging their colleagues to join in the March 24 marches for gun control organized by the student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shootings.  “We wanted to boost the signal of the kids,” explained one of the authors.

Boosting the signal of the kids! Not preaching to them or exhorting them or dismissing them as too young, too inexperienced, too novice to organize demonstrations across the whole country.  No, “boosting their signal.” First, listening to what the kids were saying, then taking it seriously, then marching alongside them.  

 Some of these authors have created a PAC dedicated to supporting Democratic candidates in state and local races, and others have established a PAC to advise “giving circles” on ways to more effectively direct their contributions in support of children.  As one publisher said, “Our life and work revolve around the children.” 

Thank you, KidLit writers, for all the picture books and storybooks and chapter books we – and our kids – can’t live without. And thank you for risking your audience, your “market,” and your precious writing time to stand with and march beside and act for the children.

They, and their grateful parents and teachers, are watching.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Your Kids, Their Data, No Privacy

Who, exactly, is watching?

A woman is pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of your child’s school, taking pictures of the children and the school. She seems especially interested in the front and side entrances. A kid runs in to tell his teacher. An alert parent in the carpool lane calls 911.  

Your daughter sees a shadow outside her bedroom window and hears a rustling in the flower bed.  You rush outside too late to see the culprit but find a large shoe print in the newly raked soil and call 911.

The coach catches the shy sophomore boy everyone believed to be kind and polite sharing nude photos on his phone with the guys in the locker room.  He takes the phone and calls the principal – who then has to call the girl’s parents to let them know their daughter’s body is no longer her own private self.

When children’s privacy is violated in ways that are overt, visible, knowable, the violation is unquestioned. It is unacceptable. In most cases it is illegal.  Even when a perpetrator is caught, prosecuted and punished, the unease remains.  The fear doesn’t go away.   The child may not feel safe, may not be able to trust.  And the parent – or teacher – lives with the vulnerability of not being able to protect that child.

So why is it different when the violation is hidden, opaque, electronic, commercial, and complicated?

Kim Slingerland, a mother of three in Alberta, Canada, discovered an intrusion into her children’s privacy by an unlikely source:  a game app marketed for children in the “family” section of Google Play.  The app, which has kids racing cartoon cars driven by animals, looks innocuous, and is even labeled as age-appropriate for young children.

In a report titled “How Game Apps CollectData on Children,New York Times reporters say that the game is designed to do more than make racing against animal drivers fun.  They write “Until last month, the app also shared users’ data, sometimes including the precise location of devices, with more than half-dozen advertising and online tracking companies.”   The attorney general of New Mexico filed a lawsuit claiming the maker of Fun Kid Racing had “violated a federal children’s privacy law through dozens of Android apple that shared children’s data.”  The suit charges the maker of this and other apps designed for children of “flouting a law intended to prevent the personal data of children under 13 from falling into the hands of predators, hackers and manipulative marketers.” And the suit charges Google with misleading parents and other consumers by listing these un-private apps in the “family” section of its products.

The Times analysts did additional research, confirming academic studies and other investigations that show that without parental consent (or even knowledge), many apps aimed at children are collecting such personal details as names, physical locations, email addresses and tracking other connections such as ads the users click on. 

The article, which extends to a full-page story in the Business section, follows attempts to regulate apps designed for children, and restrict their capacity to collect data on children, through laws and regulatory policies.   The writers document pushback by Google and others, both denying and defending their practices and urging “self-regulation” by the industry.  Graphics accompanying the article show how the data moves from the “user” (a child!) to being collected to then being marketed to third parties.

The article concludes with statements by regulators and industry leaders about whether new laws can protect children’s privacy (their “data” is their lives!), suggesting without good, consistent enforcement these companies will never be compliant.

So about that 911 call:  if we don’t know that the person lurking outside the window is really an electronic signal hiding already inside the child’s room, how can we call to report the violation?

Some speculate that the current generation of parents who grew up on computers and cell phones and social media don’t even expect for their personal information to be confidential. They think privacy is passé – it’s over.  But I’m not so sure.  If these same parents call 911 about that woman with the camera taking pictures of kids who aren’t hers, these parents clearly do care about privacy. They do care about protecting their children.  The intruders are just not visible from the carpool lane. They’re not leaving footprints in the flowerbed.

I’ve written before about the ways instructional software and digital testing programs increasingly dominating our classrooms are gathering data on the students – not just from their digital homework and tests but from any other social media they have open on their devices.    Researchers are making these intrusions – and the very inadequate laws meant to regulate them – known, but policymakers, often reliant on the big campaign contributions of the tech companies, have been slow to act. And most have little knowledge of how any of this works.

So it may be up to parents to step up, speak up. I suggest sending this article to all the parents you know who may be concerned in general about the amount of “screen time” they allow their young children but think these cute kiddie apps are harmless. The apps and the hidden systems behind them are not safe and there is no way to know just how much of your children's information has been sold to these third parties or what they may already be doing with it.

Let’s stop them from watching.