"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Friday, March 20, 2015

Veto SB235: Unless you only want black cars...

Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.
--Henry Ford

As Americans, we pride ourselves on our independence.  We like to do things our own way, in our own time, and for our own reasons.  We have become a model to the world in education and achievement, in large part, due to the freedom we have had to learn and grown and progress, not as a group, but as individuals. 

Indicative of this individuality has been our education.  We have had a large system of mostly independent schools and districts educating each generation as their parents saw fit.  But, it has always been based on parents and teachers and the community, a bottom-up approach, not a top-down diktat.  SB235 effectively removes local control and determines all success, all failure, rewards and punishments at the state-level.  We drive different makes, models and colors of cars.  Our children are more varied than our cars.  And yet, we assume that a top-down mandate of testing and meeting those testing demands will make education better, more vibrant, and more colorful.  Just like our driving will be improved if we only choose black cars.  It works only if you already wanted a black car to begin with. 

With the passage of SB235 S2 this past legislative session, we are taking the bad ideas of No Child Left Behind and making the state law.  So while our State Board is trying to get out from under NCLB, and our Congressional delegation is looking to repeal and replace NCLB, our state is going to adopt those bad ideas on a state level.  The Eagles sang, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." I thought they were talking about Hotel California, and now I find out it's bad federal ideas in education.  We have one chance in the short term to reverse this. The Governor can still veto this bill.

SB235 sounds like a nice idea.  You take the bottom 3% of our schools and you turn them around.  Who wouldn't want that?  No one.  The problem is in how you determine those 3% and what turning them around means.

First, the 3% is determined, in large part by SAGE test scores...low ones.  My fellow board member, Paula Hill, has said, "Whatever is on the test is what will be taught."  This is a reality. It's well known corollary is "That which is measured improves."  If we measure it on SAGE, we will get better at doing it.  The problem is that we may not want that improvement.  The measurement may be invalid.  SAGE has had one year of pilot-testing.  It wasn't even adaptive the first year.  But everything is riding on the assumption that this test actually is measuring what success in education looks like. 

Note: A school is  put into turnaround status as long as it's test scores are in the lowest 3 percent.  Once in turnaround status, a school will be subjected to one or more of the following: 1) hiring an outside consultant, maybe taking money from other schools in the district to pay for it, 2) turning control of the school over to the State, or 3) turning the school into a charter school.  All this, based on the assumption that SAGE is valid, reliable and adequate to our community's definition of success for our children.  All three of those assumption, in my opinion, are faulty.  For more information on my concerns with SAGE testing, see here

Second, we like to make sure that the people have a voice in all aspects of government.  Education is no exception.  So, we elect school boards to oversee what is taught in our public schools.  Charter schools, in Utah anyway, have parent boards that oversee what is taught.  Under this legislation, any 'turnaround schools' can be taken from a local system of governance and put under either the State Board or turned into a charter school.  It's important to understand that, more than likely, this charter school will not be the parent-led charter schools that we are used to in Utah, but those with a track record for 'high performance' that are seen in many other states.  Charter school companies are popping up all over.  So, we will be turning our schools over to for-profit companies that do not have any accountability to parents and taxpayers.  Under this legislation, there will never be more representation at a local level in our schools than there is now.  In a period of 33 years, if no school is selected for turnaround status more than once, we can eliminate all local representation of our schools in the state of Utah.  

Finally, saving the best for last, the US Dept of Ed has a Turnaround schools program.  And even before the governor has signed this into law, our state has been assigned to a federal 'team' for overseeing turnaround schools.  It seems to be true that we are not coerced by the feds when it comes to legislation; we adopt their reforms voluntarily.

This bill has widespread opposition.  All members of Alpine School Board are opposed to SB235 and asking the Governor for a veto.  The Utah School Boards' Association, the Utah PTA, the Utah Educators Association, Utahns Against Common Core, and Locally-Directed Education are all opposed to this.  This is a case where various ideologies all see that taking power away from parents, teachers, and locally-elected representatives centralizes and standardizes what and how our children are taught.  Quoting one of my favorites, Jefferson said, "What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun ? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body..." (1816)

Please contact the Governor at 801-538-1000 or http://governor.utah.gov/goca/form_governor.html ASAP.  Ask him to veto SB235.  My understanding is that he will act toward the beginning of next week. 

More references below:

1. My email to the governor
2. The USBA talking points
3. Utahns Against Common Core article on SB235

1.My letter to the Governor:

March 20, 2015

Dear Governor Herbert,

As a member of the Alpine School District Board of Education, I ask you to veto SB 235 S2—Turnaround Schools. While the intent of the legislation is admirable, to improve our public schools, the method, the measures, and the outcomes are problematic.

  1. SB235 has the potential to remove all local, elected representation in our public schools within 33 years. Since every year, three-percent of the lowest performing schools may be placed under state or charter control, there will never be greater elected representation in our public schools than there is today. If the same few schools fall into 'turnaround' status every year, then we will just be spinning our wheels with this legislation. If, however, the 'turnaround' is 'successful' in improving test scores, then in the space of about 33 years, every single school in the state will be in 'turnaround' status which will remove all local representation. Parents want more say in their schools, not less.
  2. SB235 will standardize and centralize control to a single criteria set at the state, not local, level. The determination of success or failure is based on the school grading system. Anything that is taught or not taught in our schools will be determined by how it is tested at the state-level. As parents and teachers seek to help our children develop their own talents and skills, our education system is removing those who know the children best, and making top-down diktats as to what success in education actually means. Also, our major measure of 'success' is the SAGE test. This measure has only been pilot tested for a single year, and legislation for two years has been motivated by parents wanting their children to not participate in this metric. As such, this metric is highly questionable, and schools with parents who have the most concerns will be greatly impacted by this legislation. With the concept of parental opt outs, this metric is less than reliable. It could also be used to coerce parents into allowing testing against their wishes. As a representative dedicated to preserving parents' fundamental rights to oversee and direct their children's education, I see great potential for problems in this area.
  3. And, finally, SB235 implements the Federal US Dept. of Education's Turnaround program at a state-level. While our State Board members and our Congressional delegation are looking at ways to remove federal control via No Child Left Behind (NCLB), this legislation effectively takes some of the most egregious parts of NCLB and implements them as state law. We are not being coerced or bribed by the feds; we are adopting their programs willingly. In this instance, at least, we become not a bastion of independence and sovereignty, but a vassal to a federal department with no accountability to parents and voters.

My overriding concern is the lack of local accountability to parents and taxpayers, much of which comes through the ballot box. I do not believe that education can or should be standardized. Parents want more say in what their children learn and how they learn it, not less. Centralizing what defines success at the state-level, effectively removes parents, teachers, and their elected representatives from having any authority to customize education to the individual student's and a particular community's needs.

For these and may other reasons, I, respectfully, ask you to veto SB 235 S2.


Wendy K. Hart
Mother of 3
Highland, UT
Alpine School Board, ASD2

2. USBA concerns with SB235
Reasons to request a veto:
1. SB235 S2 represents a major loss of local control in working with schools that are in need of improvement, and, at a time when graduation rates across the state have been steadily increasing due to the great work of local boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students in each community in the state (an increase of 7% since 2011). See: http://www.schools.utah.gov/data/Reports/Graduation-Dropout.aspx and http://www.sltrib.com/news/1941455-155/utah-graduation-rate-up-2-percent Local boards and their communities surely understand their schools better than anyone at the state level or any outsider hired by the state. And yet, while board members, administrators and teachers can certainly learn from one another and from outside experts and mentors, the mandatory use of state and local money for an outside provider denies local control. Let’s continue to allow our local communities to work on their student proficiency and graduation rates, as they have been doing so well in the past few years.

2. The first use of additional money in education, in our view, should go directly to the student for individualized or tiered interventions, such as tutoring online or after school, to help the child overcome learning deficits. Instead, the first intervention the state wishes to put forward in sb235 S2 is to hire outsiders, to use vital school funding of $8 million for advisory personnel rather than for direct services for students. We cannot imagine this is what the Utah taxpayer has consistently expressed in their desire to see more money directed to their public schools. We believe the taxpayers want more money focused on the children, not on outside advisors.

3. The bill in substitute 2 was not heard in a House committee meeting and thus, did not get the vetting necessary to fully understand the effects of the bill.

4. The bill was written chiefly by non-educators and potential recipients of the resources contained in the bill http://cicerogroup.com/ and could easily be seen as, in part, a vendor bill.

5. The bill may override the intent of, and direction of use of funds, as governed by local boards of education and even of School Community Councils. The bill has total disregard for districts that already prioritize resources based on need, per child, not necessarily per school. It may also introduce wider disparity and inequity, as, on line 138, local districts are required to take funding away from other schools and their students to enhance funding for the identified school(s). This is so unfair to students in other schools, some of whom may be struggling as much academically as are students in any identified school. This might well lead to legal challenge.

6. Sustainable change is the goal of any school improvement, but as the grades in the school grading program can be readily changed through “teach-to-the-test” strategies rather than substantial improvements in student understanding/proficiency or school performance, the bill misses the mark of teaching/learning excellence.

7. The metrics used in this bill are relatively-based rather than based on meeting certain standards, i.e., lowest percentage and grading points are relative to other schools and not grounded in meeting a quality standard.

8. Rewards are not connected with quality changes based on meeting a standard, they are achieved by relative outcomes that can be gamed for certain ages, school sizes, and student body composition (see lines 336-351).

9. The consequences for failure include less able and less successful alternatives, and have an inordinate focus on turning traditional schools into charter schools. There is no empirical evidence on student achievement in Utah or nationally to support creating more charter schools. A policy that recommends conversion to a charter school for any reason seems to be built solely upon politics, not upon data-driven decision-making or what may be in the best interest of a community’s school.

10. A low performing school is defined as one in the lowest performing 3% of schools statewide (line 80), and thus, there will always be 3% of low performing schools in the state, even if all schools were to meet a certain quality standard. And, as consequences outlined in lines 316-323 are heavily weighted toward charter schools or for-profit management companies that oversee many Utah charter schools, if the lowest 3% are moved into such a consequence each year, how soon will Utah’s community schools be taken over by for-profit charter management companies instead of locally elected officials? Schools that are run by for-profit companies and no longer under the management and accountability of elected officials, may also no longer be as responsible to the public at large or to the parents they serve.

3. Utahns Against Common Core Opposition