Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rolling Stone article sending shock waves throughout higher education America.

QUINTUPLE STOP THE PRESSES! Here's the Rolling Stone article, which is sending out shock waves throughout higher education America. This is one of those articles that people will be talking about for years – and that will hopefully lead to huge, urgent, and much-needed changes, not just at UVA, but every institution of higher ed:

Jackie was just starting her freshman year at the University of Virginia when she was brutally assaulted by seven men at a frat party. When she tried to hold them accountable, a whole new kind of abuse began…

 Two years later, Jackie, now a third-year, is worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out. Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big – a "shitshow" predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed. But her concerns go beyond taking on her alleged assailants and their fraternity. Lots of people have discouraged her from sharing her story, Jackie tells me with a pained look, including the trusted UVA dean to whom Jackie reported her gang-rape allegations more than a year ago. On this deeply loyal campus, even some of Jackie's closest friends see her going public as tantamount to betrayal.

"One of my roommates said, 'Do you want to be responsible for something that's gonna paint UVA in a bad light?' " says Jackie, poking at a vegan burger at a restaurant on the Corner, UVA's popular retail strip. "But I said, 'UVA has flown under the radar for so long, someone has to say something about it, or else it's gonna be this system that keeps perpetuating!' " Jackie frowns. "My friend just said, 'You have to remember where your loyalty lies.'"

From reading headlines today, one might think colleges have suddenly become hotbeds of protest by celebrated anti-rape activists. But like most colleges across America, genteel University of Virginia has no radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy. There are no red-tape-wearing protests like at Harvard, no "sex-positive" clubs promoting the female orgasm like at Yale, no mattress-hauling performance artists like at Columbia, and certainly no SlutWalks. UVA isn't an edgy or progressive campus by any stretch. The pinnacle of its polite activism is its annual Take Back the Night vigil, which on this campus of 21,000 students attracts an audience of less than 500 souls. But the dearth of attention isn't because rape doesn't happen in Charlottesville. It's because at UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal. Some UVA women, so sickened by the university's culture of hidden sexual violence, have taken to calling it "UVrApe."

"University of Virginia thinks they're above the law," says UVA grad and victims-rights advocate Liz Seccuro. "They go to such lengths to protect themselves. There's a national conversation about sexual assault, but nothing at UVA is changing."

In fairness to UVA, I'll bet there are well over 100 university presidents that are (very quietly) breathing a sigh of relief, as the Rolling Stone article could just as easily been written about their school. This is a pervasive problem, especially at schools that are: a) large; b) have fraternities; and c) have drinking cultures (some might add d) are in the South – but that's hard to know).
This is an enormously complex and difficult issue and there are no easy solutions. For example, I think it's naïve to say, "Colleges shouldn't be handling these cases – every woman should be referred to the local police." For sure, that's the right answer in some cases (surely more than is currently happening), but a lot of these cases fall into a grey area where there's no physical evidence or witnesses, so prosecutors can't/won't do anything (more on this below).
There are a number of presidents, board members, trustees, and other influential people on this email list, so if you have ideas for best practices that UVA and other schools could adopt, I'd love to hear them so I can disseminate them in a future email.

A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA

Jackie was just starting her freshman year at the University of Virginia when she was brutally assaulted by seven men at a frat party. When she tried to hold them accountable, a whole new kind of abuse began

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Stone Campus Rape Investigation - Letter from the President of UVA

Ironically, from what I've heard, Teresa Sullivan, who became UVA's first woman president in 2010, had already recognized that UVA had a problem and made this issue a real priority. I'm impressed with her letter in response to the article and the school's decision to suspend all of the fraternities (if only for seven weeks). It will be very interesting to see what new norms and restrictions are required before they're taken off suspension. (One college president I heard from suggested making them co-ed, as some other colleges have done – though he thinks chances of that happening at UVA are zero.) Here's an excerpt from Sullivan's letter (full letter and article below):

The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community. Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation's colleges and universities. We know, and have felt very powerfully this week, that we are better than we have been described, and that we have a responsibility to live our tradition of honor every day, and as importantly every night.

As you are aware, I have asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate the 2012 assault that is described in Rolling Stone. There are individuals in our community who know what happened that night, and I am calling on them to come forward to the police to report the facts. Only you can shed light on the truth, and it is your responsibility to do so. Alongside this investigation, we as a community must also do a systematic evaluation of our culture to ensure that one of our founding principles– the pursuit of truth – remains a pillar on which we can stand. There is no greater threat to honor than secrecy and indifference.

I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination. Meaningful change is necessary, and we can lead that change for all universities. We can demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen and that if they do, the responsible are held accountable to the law. This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes.

Stone Campus Rape Investigation

"The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community," UVA president writes in letter suspending fraternities

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UVA student leaders

I'm also impressed with this letter from UVA student leaders and the web site they quickly set up:

From: Jalen Ross, Student Council President <>
Date: Fri, Nov 21, 2014 at 5:33 PM
Subject: Rolling Stone Must Unite Us, Not Divide Us

Fellow Students,

This week, the core of who we are has been challenged. We are now questioning if we truly stand for honor and mutual trust. We wonder if we are truly the caring, supportive community that we purport to be. And we are hurting.

This week threatens to drive us apart. But this is not the time to splinter. Amid the shaking reality of a trying semester, made all the more tragic as we lost another classmate yesterday, this is the time to redouble our commitment to our principles. We must not only speak them - we must live them. And we've already begun. The outpouring of support from family and friends - even strangers - proves this community is strong. The swift, passionate calls for action prove that we care about our community of trust and that we're more dedicated than ever to shaping our own University.

But strong, honorable, loving, engaged communities recognize that even they have problems. This week, we've been startlingly reminded that sexual assault is a problem of ours. It's our moral obligation as friends, classmates, and people to end it. Now. 

Today, we call on one another to make this University the safe haven it ought to be. Take a minute to learn more, to become an advocate, or to voice your opinions. Take a moment to tell your story, or to support a survivor with loving strength. Take a second to step in when something looks wrong, to start a discussion, or to attend a prevention event. Doing nothing is to be part of the problem. And we need to be part of the solution.

So we've put everything you need to learn, speak, or get involved in one place.

We can fix this with action rooted in our principles. It is easy to hate, to cast whole communities in doubt, to deny, or to hide. But if we respond to hard times with hard work, if we respond to division with unity, if we respond to efforts to tear us down by building each other up, then we'll look back on this moment as the time we stood up to answer the call.

Let's stand together.

Jalen Ross, Student Council
Ashley Brown, One Less
Brian Head, One in Four

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Sexual violence and the law: what you need to know

A senior at UVA wrote an article entitled "Sexual violence and the law: what you need to know", which makes some excellent points about how difficult this issue is:

I can't tell you how many times I've heard the question, "If we can expel people for cheating on a test, why can't we expel someone for rape?" As someone who has worked on sexual assault prevention and adjudication during her time at U.Va. and as a survivor myself, I feel the deep frustration the apparent paradox generates. And yet, I've come to understand that the seemingly obvious answer—expel them, duh—is constrained by a whole host of federal legislation and precedent. It's not about U.Va. It's about our national system. Many of us live in the glorified legal fiction of "Law & Order: SVU." The realities are far more complex, and sadly, far more bleak. I want to take this opportunity to clarify the frustration with a cursory legal overview of the problems institutions like U.Va. face when confronting the conflict between Title IX and due process.

Sexual violence and the law: what you need to know

Administrators addressing sexual assault on college campuses find themselves caught between Title IX and due-process protections

by Emily Renda | Oct 09 2013 | 10/09/13 10:07pm 

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New Factor in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Counsel for the Accused

Here's another article about the dilemma colleges increasingly face when trying to punish those who are accused of sexual assault:

As the Columbia University student tells it, the encounter was harmless fun: A female freshman invited him into her suite bathroom, got a condom, took off her clothes and had sex with him. But as that young woman later described it to university officials, the encounter was not consensual. The university suspended him for a year.

He felt the outcome was unjust, but he did not know what to do about it. His lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg of Manhattan, did.

Invoking Title IX, the federal gender-equality statute that is typically used to protect the rights of female students, he sued Columbia, saying his client had been "discriminated against on the basis of his male sex."

At a moment when students who have been sexually assaulted are finding new ways to make their voices heard, and as college officials across the country are rushing to meet new government standards, a specialized class of lawyers is raising its voice, too. They are speaking out on behalf of the students they describe as most vulnerable: not those who might be subjected to sexual assault, but those who have been accused of it.

New Factor in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Counsel for the Accused

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Harvard sexual misconduct policy

One more article on this topic:

Dozens of Harvard Law School faculty members are asking the university to withdraw its new sexual misconduct policy, saying that it violates basic principles of fairness and would do more harm than good.

"Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required" by the federal anti-discrimination law, known as Title IX, they wrote in an op-ed article signed by 28 current and retired members of the Harvard Law faculty and posted online by The Boston Globe on Tuesday night.

"It's a totally secret process, in which real genuine unfairnesses can happen, and it's so airtight that no one would know," Janet Halley, one of the professors who signed the article, said Wednesday.

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Lying about rape

To those who say "a woman would never lie about being raped", allow me to share with you the response by my wife's college roommate, who at the time (maybe 15 years ago) was in the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office. When I said this to her, she replied:
Oh please. Rape is the MOST lied about crime. Think about it: does anybody ever lie about being mugged, having their home burglarized, their car stolen, whereas there are a lot of reasons why a woman might lie about being raped. I had one case where, after we investigated, it turned out that she was a prostitute and was using a rape claim to try to resolve a dispute with her customer about how much he owed her. In the case of another woman, her parents found out she'd had sex and they were super conservative so, to get out of being punished, she made up a rape story. Or another woman who made up the story because she was angry that they guy hadn't called her afterward.
Let me be clear: I think a woman completely fabricating stories like these is extremely rare. But far more common no doubt are situations in which I think a reasonable person would say belongs in a gray area: both people are drunk, horny and like each other, they go up to his or her room and start making out, things get hot and heavy, and they have sex. Did he pressure her? Did he force her? Did she say no? Who knows? There are almost never any witnesses. What is a prosecutor or a university supposed to do with this?

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Follow-up to "Ivy League Girls Gone Wild”

I think women need to be smart about protecting themselves by not getting into dangerous situations, which I wrote about in my email of July 22, 2013 entitled Follow-up to "Ivy League Girls Gone Wild", which is posted at: It's one of my all-time favorite emails. Here's an excerpt:
I really didn't mean to create an international incident with my email a week ago, in which I made some partly-serious/partly-tongue-in-cheek comments on the NY Times article about widespread promiscuity among young female college students at Penn (no doubt the NY Post would have entitled it "Ivy League Girls Gone Wild"), but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. In addition to the obviously enticing prurient angle, the article touched deeply emotional hot-button issues such as sex, relationships, mortality, physical safety/violence, women's rights/equality, and our society's double standards. In hindsight I should have spent more time thinking about these issues and written something more in depth before sending the article around with only brief comments.
It generated an enormous amount of feedback, some of it hilarious (one friend wrote, "I predict a wave of d*ck biting on campuses, hereafter known among young women as "giving good Tilson"!) and some of it very serious and personal. For example, three women who recently graduated from Ivy League schools wrote me that they were "shocked" by my "offensive" comments and called on me to apologize (their email and my response – as well as responses from a few other folks – are below). If you read one of my emails this year to the very end, make it this one – some folks sent me some very powerful stuff.
… A large percentage of men are horn dogs – which has been the case since the dawn of time. I don't know how large, but large enough that any woman would be well advised to assume that, until definitely proven otherwise, a man is a horn dog (meaning he will pull any trick to get a woman to engage in as much sexual activity with him as possible). Worse yet, some men are more than horn dogs – they will go beyond the standard tricks like getting a woman drunk, verbally wooing and/or pressuring her, etc. and, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved, use their size and strength to force (or intimidate) a woman into unwanted sexual activity. I'm not saying this is right – it's most certainly not – but I am saying that this is a universal truth, and it's not like it's some great secret.
The implications for a woman are clear: a) While you shouldn't live in fear of every man you encounter, be cognizant that men can be dangerous, especially when they're drunk; b) If you're not interested in hooking up, don't behave like you are; and c) While drinking socially is fine and even getting a little tipsy is usually harmless, binge drinking is extremely dangerous in countless ways so DON'T EVER DO IT!
I suspect you're going to have a strong negative reaction to the preceding paragraph since you wrote "suggesting that women have to play by a different set of rules in this situation or any other is offensive." My reply: oh please. When was the last time a man who got drunk was sexually assaulted by a woman? OF COURSE women have to play by a different set of rules! Why is it okay to say that if someone gets mugged walking through a known highly dangerous neighborhood, that they were massively stupid (while not excusing the behavior of the mugger), but it's not okay to say that a woman who (very willingly and happily) gets drunk to the point of almost unconsciousness and gets taken advantage of sexually is massively stupid (while not excusing the behavior of the man)?

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

What Went Wrong at the Upstart School Milken Backed?

Here's an in-depth Bloomberg article about what went wrong at for-profit online charter school company, K12, in which I'm quoted:

At a September 2013 investment conference, hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson cited K12's recruitment methods as one reason why he was shorting its stock, along with weak test results and high student turnover. In a short sale, investors sell borrowed shares, and profit when a stock falls by buying cheaper shares that are returned to the lender.

Three weeks later, shares fell 38 percent in one day because of an announcement about weaker enrollment. Tilson, the managing partner of New York hedge fund Case Capital Management, said one of his funds made $500,000 from the decline in K12 shares.

As a former board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Tilson is an unlikely opponent of K12, he said.

"I'm not against charter schools, I'm not against for-profits, I'm not against online," he said in an interview. "I'm just against all of those things run amok."

In a statement, the company said most of Tilson's analysis was "incorrect or tainted" because he "economically benefited from a negative report."

It's ironic that the company says the analysis I presented at my Value Investing Congress 14 months ago on Sept. 17, 2013 (you can see my 133-slide presentation was "incorrect" when, in fact, pretty much everything I said would happen did happen (or is happening), and as a result the stock has collapsed by 2/3, as this stock chart shows:
My investment thesis has largely played out (and I have, unrelated to this particular investment, significantly reduced my short book), so I am no longer short K12's stock, but I am still following the company closely and will continue to highlight bad things I think the company is doing (and, if warranted, praise good things it's doing). Speaking of which, one of the reasons I think K12's enrollment, margins and growth expectations are down (which is why the stock collapsed) is because the company has taken steps to rein in uncontrolled growth and invest more in providing a better education for students. Very small steps, to be sure, but at least ones in the right direction…

What Went Wrong at the Upstart School Milken Backed? 

By John Hechinger, Bloomberg
Nov 14, 2014 5:00 AM ET

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Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits

Speaking of charter schools running amok, here's an excellent article by Marian Wang of ProPublica (an outstanding organization dedicated to in-depth journalism), exposing how a businessman named Baker Mitchell has set up four charter schools named Roger Bacon Academy in North Carolina that, while technically nonprofit, "about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools."
This is exactly the scam K12 runs in states that don't allow for-profit charter schools: set up nonprofit schools, but make sure the boards are totally captive to the for-profit entity and then siphon off most of the money. This is a total disgrace and the Republicans who support and enable the growth of these schools, spouting clichés about the free market, should be ashamed of themselves.
I'm a hedge fund manager, so I don't need a lecture about the virtues of the free market and capitalism. I get it. But a smart, well-enforced legal and regulatory framework is needed to rein in the abuses and excesses of the free market: companies that would pollute the environment, produce dangerous products or operate dangerous facilities, bilk taxpayers, take on too much leverage (witness the banks), etc. Just look at China…
What K12 and Mitchell are doing gives the entire charter school movement – in fact, the entire ed reform movement – a black eye and a bad name. Here's John Merrow's summary of Wang's article:

Of course you've heard of the notorious criminal Jesse James [1], but you may not be familiar with Baker Mitchell. He's a businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public [2] charter schools.

I read on the internet that Mr. Mitchell is the salt of the earth, a successful entrepreneur from Texas who decided to devote his retirement years to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, when he might have chosen to go fishing and play golf. He's a "Liberty Leader" who uses "his energy and charitable dollars to change education for the better — to drive education paradigms back to more traditional, classical methods with their proven records of accomplishment and success." All that must be true because I read it on the internet. [3]

So Mr. Mitchell, now 74, moved from Texas to North Carolina and opened some charter schools to help children. He now has four and has been talking about opening more.

And why wouldn't he? Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run 'for profit,' about$19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools. That information, and more, can be found in Marian Wang's brilliant reporting for Pro Publica.

Here's a short excerpt:

Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell's chain of four nonprofit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell's charter schools there's no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools' administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the nonprofit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell's management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

Pro Publica reports that Roger Bacon Academy rents land, buildings and equipment from Coastal Habitat Conservancy LLC, which Mr. Mitchell also owns. Until last year, he also sat on the charter school Board of Trustees.

Mr. Mitchell seems to have experienced a learning curve. At first he billed his own charter schools for only two line items: 'Building and equipment rental' and 'Management fees,' for a total of just $2,600,878 in FY2008 and $2,325,881 in FY2009.

But apparently he was learning how the system works. In FY 2010 he added an innocuous sounding line item, "Allocated costs," for which he billed $739,893, cracking the $3,000,000 barrier.

In FY2011 he added more line items:

Staff development & supervision: $549,626
Back office & support: $169,357
Building rent-classrooms: $965,740
Building rent-administration offices: $82,740, and
Miscellaneous equipment rent: $317,898. 

The grand total for FY2011 was $3,712,946.

Jesse James was shot by a member of his own gang; if he were alive today, he might be dying from envy.

Mr. Mitchell broke the $4,000,000 barrier in FY2012, when the same line items totaled $4,137,382.

According to the audited financial statements for FY2013, Mr. Mitchell's companies received $6,313,924, as follows:

16% management fee: $2,047,873
Administrative support: $2,796,943
Building and equipment rental: $1,474,108

Dig into the audited statements (here and here) and you get some idea of where the $6,313,924 did not go. For example, the schools spent only $16,319 on staff development [4], which works out to less than three-tenths of one percent. They report spending just $28,060 on computers and technology, which is also about three-tenths of one percent.

Are you curious to know where the money comes from? In FY2013 Mr. Mitchell's schools collected nearly$9,000,000 from North Carolina and the federal government. Local school districts paid Mr. Mitchell's schools anywhere from $4095 to $1,712,328, depending upon the number of students from that district.

Don't forget charitable contributions. Mr. Mitchell's schools report receiving a whopping $93 in donations.

Of course the entire $15,000,000 that has gone to Mr. Mitchell's companies has not been profit; surely there were legitimate expenses, such as building maintenance, insurance, utilities and so forth. That's a logical leap, but we have to infer because he does not have to disclose spending. These are public dollars (all but that whopping $93 donation), but the public has no right to know how its money is being spent because the charter schools aren't actually spending the money; his for-profit businesses are. Non-disclosure is fine with him, as Pro Publica reported.

Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell's chain of four nonprofit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls. 

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How teacher hiring puts black and Hispanic kids at a disadvantage

Yet another study showing what any informed person knows: our educational system systematically sticks poor and minority students with more of the worst teachers:

Now, a new working paper suggests that schools in Los Angeles often wind up putting children of color in classrooms with teachers who have less skill and experience than those who teach their white classmates.

The differences were slight -- enough to move the average black, Hispanic or Asian student one or two percentiles lower on standardized tests -- but statistically significant. Harvard University's Thomas Kane, one of the authors of the paper, already made some of the results public while testifying in the Los Angeles case, Vergara v. California.

The impassioned debate over tenure and compensation for teachers has continued in the months since the ruling. Just this week, the Obama administration asked states to come up with plans for distributing the best teachers equally among students, regardless of race or family income.

In an interview, Kane explained how teachers' contracts can affect where the best ones work. Teachers often don't want to teach in schools in impoverished neighborhoods, because the job is so much more exhausting than in schools where the students come from happier homes and are generally better behaved.

In a district such as Los Angeles, teachers with seniority might have a contractual right to transfer to a post of their choice. Younger teachers who are just learning the profession end up working with poorer students, who are also often students of color.

"Our schools serving our most disadvantaged students are the places where novice teachers get hired and broken in," Kane said. "Once they develop some experience, they move to other schools."

Regarding what we should do about it:

Figuring out what to do about that is a problem that no one has quite been able to solve. The administration's notice to states this week offered little in the way of specifics about how to get the best teachers to where their talents are needed most.

Like many economists, Kane feels that skilled teachers who work in disadvantaged neighborhoods should be paid bonuses to encourage them to stay, but identifying the best teachers poses additional questions.

This reminds me of a story Joel Klein told me many years ago (from memory):
If I have science teacher openings at schools on the Upper East Side and in the South Bronx, I have a dozen qualified applicants for the former and zero for the latter. What does that tell you? Obviously, we've overpaying for the job on the UES and underpaying for the job in the SB. So I'd like to pay the highly qualified science teacher willing to work in tough neighborhoods like the SB more – but I can't: the union contract ties my hands. So the SB kids, year in and year out, get the less qualified teachers.

How teacher hiring puts black and Hispanic kids at a disadvantage

, Washington Post
November 13, 2014

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Update on "A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine South Sudan Reform

Every year or so, I add some new slides and update my school reform presentation, "A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform", which is always posted at: (It was made into a documentary in 2010 that you can watch at: -- this is the full-length 83-minute version; a shorter 55-minute version is posted at:; also, the two-minute trailer is
Here are the five new slides, which I presented for the first time yesterday to ~75 young teachers at Great Oaks Charter School in Newark (

Here are the five new slides, which I presented for the first time yesterday to ~75 young teachers at Great Oaks Charter School in Newark (

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Beautiful tribute to Polly Williams by DFER’s Joe Williams

Here's a beautiful tribute to Polly Williams by DFER's Joe Williams, who, early in his career, covered the ed/voucher wars in Milwaukee for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
REMEMBERING POLLY - We mourned the death Sunday night of Annette "Polly" Williams, a long-time State Representative from the north side of Milwaukee. She has been called the "mother of school choice," but even that tag doesn't do her justice. A black Democrat, Polly was really the first prominent elected Democrat in the nation in the post-deseg era to stand up and call BS on a public school system that wasn't working for black children.
If you remember, many establishment black leaders in the 1970's and early 1980's were publicly aligned with court-ordered desegregation efforts in school systems like Milwaukee. They had supported (and in many cases brought) the original deseg lawsuits and were essentially "bought in" to the resulting settlements and busing plans because they signed on to the agreements. To be critical of the early results of these plans would be very complicated and potentially self-defeating.
The really amazing thing about Polly was that she didn't care about all that. She and Howard Fuller, before he became Milwaukee Superintendent in the early 1990's, fought some rather lonely battles with the NAACP and other groups, arguing passionately that the very busing schemes meant to enable black children to get a better education in Milwaukee had had the opposite effect. Black students, they argued, were being ripped from their neighborhoods to satisfy arbitrary "racial balance" quotas. The system had become so focused on implementing the complicated and convoluted busing plan there was little energy (or money) left to actually educate those same kids. Black children were not getting a better education for it, they argued, and their families had lost power over what was happening to their kids.
Polly and Howard led a move to basically secede the north side of Milwaukee from the Milwaukee Public Schools, proposing to create what would have been an all-black school district. The backlash from the school establishment (and teacher unions) and liberals to try to stop them created the conditions which eventually led to the launch of Milwaukee's private school voucher program. (They ended up losing on the district secession plan, but winning later on the next best alternative for them: school choice.)
As an elected Democrat at the time, Polly was the first to rip up the party's traditional playbook and make a very public argument that the kids she represented were being harmed by the very school system that the Democratic Party was seemingly willing to defend to its death.
Yes, Polly was a pain in the neck to work with at times (show me a strong leader who isn't) but she was remarkably consistent in her thinking on education reform and empowering parents for more than 30 years. She represented the anger that many black families felt because of the way they were treated by the system. She wasn't big on orgs she considered "white" like TFA and the big charter networks, but without her paving the way in the early years it is hard to imagine how today's education reform movement would have ever formed at all. (With DFER, as Katy Venskus can tell you, she was supportive but suspicious...)
She was so consistent in her thinking that she eventually drove the school choice lobby in Wisconsin nuts when publicly opposed legislation to expand the voucher program beyond just low-income families. She made it clear to anyone who listened that she didn't support school choice because she believed in competition. She supported school choice because the kids in her community were getting screwed and she wanted payback.
Still, she - more than anyone I can think of - really let the ed reform genie out of the bottle.
Think of it this way: It was Polly's support for vouchers (she considered them reparations) in the late 1980's which enabled a Republican Governor (Tommy Thompson) to cut a deal with her in 1989 to create Milwaukee's private school choice program. The groundbreaking law brought Polly considerable national attention. (If I remember correctly, the NY Times included Polly with the creators of Sesame Street and other visionaries in their short list of the top education trailblazers of the last century.)
The timing was important. At the same time all of this was happening, neighboring Minnesota was passing the nation's first charter law.
For many Dem strategists at the time, the prevailing theory was that the best way to stop Dems like Polly from partnering with Republican Governors to spread private school choice more broadly was to aggressively support the budding charter school movement as a kinder, gentler alternative. This then created the conditions for Governors like Bill Clinton and the influential Democratic Leadership Council to emphatically embrace charters as a reform option and, just as important, to begin admitting out loud that there was a problem in schools. (For most of the 1990's, as Charlie Barone and Michael Dannenberg will tell you, the Dems were in near complete denial about the state of public education.) But the door had been opened.
Polly cracked open the door in a way that scared the hell out of the establishment, and the establishment reacted. President Clinton went on to create federal start-up grants for charters and the charter movement took off... (Also, the national teacher unions at the time make the miscalculated decision to double-down on the 'there is nothing wrong and even if there is, just give us more money and it will be groovy' strategy which ended up alienating key liberal leaders like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller on accountability issues.)
Obviously there is some oversimplification here on my part, but you get the idea. It's sort of like the scene in It's A Wonderful Life ( when you get to see what the world would have been like had George Bailey not been there to make a difference. That's how important Polly's role was back then.
When I was still a journalist, Polly was a trusted source for me. (She and her aide, Larry Harwell, used to share maps, stats, memos, and other documents to refute the argument coming from public school leaders that everything was just peachy in the Milwaukee Public Schools.) She - like Howard - challenged my own liberal, knee-jerk tendencies and kept me in close touch with the anger real families felt about how the system wasn't working for their kids. 
When I made the decision to send my son to an integrated arts magnet school (she called it "Yuppie Academy,") she reminded me of all the black kids who had been bused out of that inner city neighborhood so that the children of white liberals like me could attend a great public school and brag about what great supporters of public education we were. She wasn't wrong in her assessment.
Polly was my neighbor and also my friend. She was crazy (like a fox) and that was partly why I loved her.
When you think about how much work DFER has had to do even in the last eight years to get today's Democrats to admit there is even a problem which needs solving in education, you can get a sense for how important Polly's lonely elected voice was back in the 1980's. It was pretty much blasphemy back then.
I was chatting about Polly the other day with Howard Fuller and he was lamenting the fact that so many young people in the education reform movement had no idea of who she was or what her impact had been. He's right. Consider this my feeble attempt to shine a tiny ray of light on some of it.

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Kevin Huffman out as education commissioner

 I just learned that Kevin Huffman, state education commissioner in Tennessee, is leaving his position effective the end of this year due to, rumor has it, bullsh*t internal Republican politics (it's not just Democrats who have to get their house in order on this issue – the resistance to ed reform is very powerful in both blue states and red ones!). I can't think of anyone who made more bold changes faster than Huffman, all the while enduring endless slings and arrows from both the far right and the far left – which raises the question of the day: which party's extremists are crazier – those that don't believe in evolution, or those that believe that pouring more money into the broken system will fix it???
The real losers, of course (as always), are the children of Tennessee – and their parents, who want no more than what all parents want for their children: a good education so they can have a fair shot in life. It sounds so simple, but as a nation we're systematically denying this to millions of children, mostly poor black and brown ones (it goes without saying, to anyone with an ounce of common sense, that if large numbers of white kids were forced to attend chronically failing schools, the problem would be fixed in no time). It's an outrage.
Below is an article with more details about Huffman and his departure – here's an excerpt:
Huffman also led the establishment of the Achievement School District, a state-run district empowered to take over the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis. The ASD can either run the schools directly or hand them over to charter school operators. The district's results, so far, have been mixed.
Last year, the state had some of the nation's highest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which Huffman and Haslam attributed to increased standards and school choice.
"Commissioner Huffman is a strong, courageous leader with an unwavering belief in Tennessee's students," said ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic in a statement Thursday. "The greatest testament to his leadership is student achievement. … we're the fastest-improving state in the country and our kids are much better off today than they were three years ago."
And here's a statement by Chiefs for Change:

For Immediate Release: 
November 13, 2014 

Gary Larson
(415) 722-0127 

Chiefs for Change Statement on Kevin Huffman's Departure

WASHINGTON - In response to the departure of Kevin Huffman from the Tennessee Department of Education, Hanna Skandera, Chair of Chiefs for Change and New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary, released the following statement:

"Kevin Huffman joined Chiefs for Change shortly after he became the Tennessee Education Commissioner in April 2011.  

"As Commissioner, Kevin set out to be a champion for children in Tennessee. Based on his vast experience in the teaching realm, he was determined to improve teaching quality in Tennessee by building new systems that would measure teacher progress and identify ways in which teachers could be more successful with all kids, especially children of color and those who suffer great disadvantages.  Kevin has always stood against those who say kids couldn't succeed because of their background or zip code. His effort to build teacher quality and insistence on advancing educational outcomes for all led to Tennessee students being the fastest improving in the nation in 2013.  

"Tennessee's results, measured by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, are directly tied to countless teachers and students who do the work in the classroom, as well as the policies that Kevin and Governor Haslam identified, fought for and implemented. It is one thing to have an idea of what to do to improve a large, disconnected bureaucracy, including multiple underperforming school districts, but it is another thing to implement that idea, impact that bureaucracy and have the remarkable results that Kevin's leadership produced.

"In addition to leading change in Tennessee, Kevin, as a member of Chiefs for Change, became a national voice for making real policy and practice changes to an antiquated education system that is often virulent in resisting efforts to improve outcomes for all children.  He was a consistent voice for Chiefs for Change in the national landscape, along with the other courageous state education leaders.

"We wish Kevin all the best in his next position and look forward to his continued involvement in Chiefs for Change."

Kevin Huffman out as education commissioner

He became a lightning rod for anger over major policy changes

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