by Félix Pérez
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From coast to coast, 2015 has seen its share of highs and lows when it comes to news that affects students, educators and public schools. A consistent element throughout is communities rising up and collectively taking action. Following is our take on the year’s top seven news stories.
7. St. Paul, Minn., parents, educators and community members change school board leadership in historic election.
“We need to be there for our kids and our schools need to work for our kids. So we’re ready to go to work. Let’s all go to work!” said newly elected school board member Mary Vanderwert as she addressed educators, parents and community members election night. Four winning candidates — two women and two men and all St. Paul public schools parents — were propelled to victory by a community-wide coalition whose members knocked on doors, made phone calls and attended forums. Among the new school board majority’s priorities: Advocate for the needs of all students – especially ELL and special needs students – and adequate staffing, and reduce the racial disparity of discipline referrals by implementing restorative practices in our schools so that classrooms are safe and productive spaces for students and educators alike.
6. Ohio stands to lose $32 million federal grant because of charter school system fiasco.
Under Gov. John Kasich’s leadership, Ohio’s charter school system earned the shameful distinction of being recognized as the nation’s worst, time after time shortchanging students by shuttering without notice and engaging in academic and financial fraud and abuse. But it appears that Ohio’s lax charter oversight and accountability may have caught up with it. Last month, the federal education department notified Ohio that it must “refrain from drawing down any Charter School Program funds . . . or incurring any expenses or obligations” related to a $32.7 million grant until the state provides audited information about the accuracy of charter school performance, transparency and accountability. Ohio was informed that the new conditions will remain in place until the state is able to “verify the accuracy and completeness of its application.”
5. Seattle educators score big win for educators, students, public schools and communities.
Seattle teachers went on strike for six days in September, in the end, with the active support of parents and community residents, winning a historic contract that benefited students, teachers and education support professionals. Beyond including the first cost-of-living raises in six years, the contract guaranteed, 30-minute, daily recess for all elementary school students, created committees at 30 schools to look at equity issues, including disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect minorities. Student standardized test scores will no longer be used to evaluate teachers — and teachers will be included in decisions on the amount of standardized testing. Additionally, special education teachers will have fewer students to work with at a time, and there will be caseload limits for other specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists. “This agreement signals a new era in bargaining in public education,” said Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp. “We’ve negotiated a pro-student, pro-parent, pro-educator agreement.”
4. Jefferson County, Col., parents, community residents reclaim school board from the Koch brothers.
Jefferson County, Col., parents and community members took on the Koch brothers and won. They reclaimed their school board from an ultraconservative majority. The ousted board members forced out a popular superintendent, met in secret, limited public comment at meetings, and tried to censor the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum, prompting a series of school walkouts by thousands of students that made national news. Also drawing the ire of the community was how the majority hired a hand-picked, first-time superintendent at a salary $80,000 higher than his popular predecessor. Teachers, weary of being scapegoated, were leaving the district in record numbers. The Koch brothers-financed group Americans for Prosperity spent more than $500,000 on behalf of the conservative members.
Newly elected school board member Ron Mitchell, who won an election bid against one of the controversial board members, said to residents on election night, “You collectively, every single one you, have given every teacher in this district hope. Some time this next week, see the teacher across the street who is your neighbor, see one in your school and let them know you appreciate the work they have been doing. We have actually shown disrespect and demonized our teachers for two years and I am tired of it.”
3. The Washington Supreme Court rules the state’s charter school law unconstitutional.
In a ruling believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in September that charter schools are unconstitutional. The decision overturned a law voters narrowly approved in 2012 allowing publicly funded, but privately operated, schools. According to the court, charter schools do not qualify as “common” schools under Washington’s Constitution and cannot receive public funding intended for public schools. Under the unconstitutional law, charter schools are not common schools because they are controlled by a charter school board, not by local voters.
“The Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along – charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding,” said Kim Mead, industrial arts teacher and president of the Washington Education Association.
2. The National Education Association supports Hillary Clinton for president in the Democratic primary.
Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. senator, has a long-held commitment to students and the issues educators care about most, and she understands the road to a stronger U.S. economy starts in America’s public schools. That was the rationale the National Education Association’s board of directors voiced in October when they announced the organization’s support for Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. NEA, the nation’s largest labor union with 3 million members, cited Clinton’s support of public education and working families that goes back decades. “Educators know that Clinton is a true partner and always will give us a voice in working to not only create stronger public schools but to create a stronger America,” said Lily Eskelsen García, a Utah elementary school teacher and NEA president. Major factors contributing to the board’s decision were Clinton’s positions on:
- Ending the overuse of standardized testing in the classroom
- Fully funding our students’ education, and
- Collective bargaining.
“I’ve stood with educators throughout my career — from my early days working at the Children’s Defense Fund to my success creating a new teacher recruitment program in the Senate,” said Clinton. “As president, I will fight to defend workers’ right to organize and unions’ right to bargain collectively, and I will ensure that teachers always have a voice and a seat at the table in making decisions that impact their work.”
1. The No Child Left Behind era came to an end.
Educators nationwide welcomed this month the long-overdue end to the No Child Left Behind test-and-blame era as President Obama signed a law designed to create greater opportunity for every student. The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed by overwhelming bipartisan super-majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House. “We commend Congress for the bipartisan cooperation, leadership and hard work to get the job done for students and educators,” said Utah elementary school teacher and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “We thank President Obama for signing this important bill into law. Now our work begins in earnest as we shift our attention toward implementation. We look forward to working closely with state and local policymakers, as well as other key stakeholders, to raise our voice to deliver on the promise of ESSA and to provide opportunity for all students.”
Among ESSA’s improvements:
- Empowers educators with a greater voice in educational and instructional decisions.
- Eliminates NCLB’s rigid system of Adequate Yearly Progress aimed at 100 percent proficiency.
- Allows districts to apply to instead use another nationally recognized assessment in high school instead of the state standardized tests.
- Maintains the right of parents and guardians to opt their children out of statewide academic assessments.
- Prohibits the federal government from mandating teacher evaluations or defining teacher effectiveness.
- Provides greater access to early childhood education.