Why more kids should have access to charter schools

neighborhood-house-charterThe Neighborhood House Charter School in the Dorchester section of Boston is a prime example of why more children should have access to charter school education.  That’s the goal of Question 2 on the November ballot, allowing the state Board of Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools a year.   If more than 12 proposals for charters were submitted, priority would be given to proposals in areas with the worst performing schools.

The Neighborhood House started in 1995 with 51 students. It now has 468 students from pre-K through grade 8. By 2022, the expansion of high school grades will bring its students to 828. Sixty percent are African Americans; just under 20 percent, white; just under 20 percent Latino. The rest are Asian or multi-race.  Thirty-five to 40 percent of students come from families whose language at home is not English.  Twenty-five percent of students in middle school are special ed; in the elementary grades, 16 percent.  By all measures, such diversity reflects the city of Boston.

A visit there this week speaks of so much more than numbers.  The children in classes I visited had an extraordinary level of engagement and enthusiasm, arms raised to be called upon, some jumping out of their seats to share ideas. When students disagreed with each other, the tone was always respectful.

The school has half a dozen teachers in music and arts, and all levels have opportunities for exposure in those areas. Language arts enhance skills not only in fiction but in informational texts, the kinds of data analyses middle school students will increasingly be called upon to assess as they get older and need to evaluate claims and sort out evidence. Tablets and electronic white boards are integrated into some aspects of the classroom experience.

One wall displayed pictures of special trips the children get to take,  a trip to the United Nations for sixth graders; to Washington, DC and Philadelphia for eighth graders. Students may even apply to participate in a smaller trip to a rain forest in Costa Rica.

There are two adults in each class, a teacher and a teaching fellow. The school day, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.,  is longer than in other public schools. Some students have after-school activities and don’t leave until 6 p.m.  When students  reach middle school, they have a dress code: khaki or navy pants or skirts, collared shirts in white or light blue.

There is no teachers union at charter schools, which makes longer school days possible and facilitates moving teachers around to meet their needs and those of the children. What’s in it for teachers? Tons of professional development and mentoring. Salaries that are competitive with surrounding communities like Brookline and Arlington (though not with Boston’s traditional public schools, which are the fifth highest in the nation). There’s a small day care on site for the littlest children of faculty and staff. There are 401K plans, life insurance, short-and-long term disability, dental insurance.  Salary structure is reviewed every five years collaboratively, with input from staff at every level.

A “quality of life” faculty committee meets three times a year without administrators present to encourage frank discussions of what’s working well and where changes need to be made. Across the board, the emphasis is on collaborative decision making.

Teaching is hard work, an intense process. The best teachers are those who don’t see their jobs as containing kids but encouraging them to succeed, fostering the right mix of engagement, sense of belonging, assertiveness and ability to be reflective.

Much of the criticism of proposed charter school expansion centers on the alleged drain of public dollars, which follow the students from traditional schools to charters. A recent study by the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation makes it clear that charter schools draw funding proportionate to the number of students, just under four percent of students, just under four percent of the money.  The charter schools do not receive any money for facilities so they have to do some serious fundraising. The Neighborhood House, for example, has to raise about $1 million a year.

Is it all working?  It surely seems so.  Staff turnover is low. Eighth-grade students last year scored first in the state on the PARC test, a standardized alternative to MCAS exams. And, importantly, the Neighborhood House Charter is taking its best practices to help turn around other Boston public schools, notably, Harbor Middle School in Fields Corner,  East Boston’s Donald McKay School, and Mattapan’s Mildred Avenue K-8. That opportunity for charter schools to be laboratories for the development of best educational practices is yet another reason why voters should say Yes on Question 2, authorizing charter school expansion. The 33,000 children on the waiting list shouldn’t have to wait for wide scale improvement to have the educational opportunity they need right now.

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Finally, movement on Sal DiMasi

AP photo

AP photo

It’s about time. Federal prosecutors have finally asked for the early release of former Mass. House Speaker Sal DiMasi from a federal prison in Butler, North Carolina. DiMasi was convicted on seven out of nine corruption charges and sentenced to federal prison for eight years. Di Masi used his office to enrich himself to the tune of $65,000, securing $17.5 million in state contracts for Burlington software firm Cognos, which paid him on a monthly basis for his efforts.

DiMasi’s steep eight-year sentence sent home a clear message that this kind of crime would not be tolerated. Federal Judge Mark Wolf, mindful that DiMasi at the time had a heart condition and his wife, Debbie,  was being treated for breast cancer, recommended to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) that DiMasi serve his sentence in Ayer, Mass. Instead, he was shipped off to Kentucky.

As I wrote last year, when DiMasi discovered lumps in his neck, he asked repeatedly for medical attention. That took months to happen and still longer to get treatment for his malignancy.  The cancer metastasized to Stage IV tongue and lymph node cancer. His condition continued to deteriorate while the FBP shuttled him from one inaccessible prison to another, supposedly to wring testimony from him that might lead to other convictions.  He subsequently developed prostate cancer. His eight-year sentence was not supposed to be a death sentence.

For a long time, Sal DiMasi was one of the good guys on Beacon Hill. He fought proposals to overturn gay marriage, thwarted the ill-considered push for casinos, and played a key role in developing the nation’s first universal health care law, the model for the Affordable Care Act.  There’s no little irony that the Bureau of Prison’s denying him adequate health care brought the former Speaker closer to death.

DiMasi has more than two years left, but prosecutors are finally asking for compassionate release.  The decision will be up to Judge Wolf. He should waste no time in asking for that.

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Trump, Clinton “revelations” show nothing new

trump-video-october-7Last night’s video of Donald Trump, showing lewd behavior, coarse language, gutter-level attitude toward women and boasts of Bill Cosby-like predatory actions, shows nothing new about this extreme misogynist. Perhaps the video shocks because it so starkly portrays his fundamental character writ large. Is the video analogous to Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained blue dress? Incontrovertible evidence of the character we’re dealing with?  Too bad there hasn’t been a comparable level of outrage at the Washington Post  disclosures on wrong-doing by his Foundation and New York Times coverage of what’s lurking behind his hidden tax returns.

To those who try to dismiss the boasting about his assaultive sexual behavior as mere locker room talk years before his candidacy, I say, no! The video reinforces who Donald Trump is at his core, someone who by attitude, behavior, and demeanor is unfit to be a healthy parent, let alone the face of the United States in the free world.

Last night, Trump issued an apology in a statement resembling nothing so much as  a hostage tape. His campaign managers (including probably fired Fox sex harasser Roger Ailes) obviously wrote it and forced him to read it. Republican Party leaders are jumping ship. Even wishy-washy New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who last week said in a debate (before doing a 180)  she saw Trump as a role model for children. Now she says she can’t vote for Trump, but will write in Mike Pence. Her positions on the top of the GOP ticket have been a pathetic ballet.

On the other side of the aisle, the hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email, apparently revealing long-hidden content from Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, similarly reveals nothing new. We have long known she started shading her centrist positions on the financial industry and on trade in response to Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge. What is most discomforting (but not unexpected for most politicians) is her acknowledgement that there are some issues on which she has both public and private positions. We should always remember the Bismarck and Mark Twain adage that people who respect the law and love sausages should never watch either being made.

The release reinforces the concern that, Hillary Clinton’s protestations to the contrary, her administration will be highly influenced by a tight inner circle of special interests. Unlike Donald Trump, however, at least Clinton has the public positions that align with progressive policies and values. They can be used to hold her feet to the fire if/when she is elected. And it’s not as if she hasn’t pushed for those values from her youthful days at the Children’s Defense Fund. Trump has no such history, except to serve himself.

I would hope that in tomorrow night’s town hall forum the candidates move beyond “Gropegate” and email disclosures to get at the core differences in the their positions on the crucial issues facing our nation. Issues like creating jobs and growing the economy, immigration reform, terrorism, gun violence,  student debt, Affordable Care Act reform, and balancing energy and environmental needs.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post he’d never withdraw.  At this point it’s probably too late for him to do so effectively.  His only hope to counter his downward trajectory may be more October surprises. According to WikiLeak’s Julian Assange, he’s only gone public with one percent of Russian-hacked emails. This is going to be a very long month.

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Pence wins on looks; Kaine, on facts

pence-v-kaineThe Vice Presidential debate never matters much in the selection of our Chief Executive. Given what’s at stake in choosing between the Democrat and Republican Presidential nominees, it perhaps matters  even less this year.  But at least for a few days, last night’s Mike Pence/ Tim Kaine head-to-head could influence the national conversation. Even that could be pushed aside as Hurricane Matthew comes closer and the baseball playoffs get underway.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, with his calm, handsome appearance and often smooth delivery, honed by experience as a former talk show host, won on optics and demeanor. Virginia Senator and former Governor Tim Kaine was over-eager, over-scripted and interrupted too much, sometimes coming across like a gerbil frantic to irritate the opposition. If you were to watch the debate with the sound turned off, Pence was the clear winner. The moderator, CBSN’s Elaine Quijano, was in way over her head in attempting to curb the interruptions or guide the discussion. She treated the questions (with lack of follow-ups) as if she were running a speed-dating event.

But style isn’t substance. While Kaine was rat-a-tat-tat with his attack on outrageous comments Donald Trump has made, Pence was simultaneously shaking his head no and  denying Trump ever said those things. The Huffington Post has set to  music all Pence’s denials along with the video of the Trump statements Pence is insisting never happened.

The Washington Post’s fact checking of the debate looks at all the assertions made by the two and finds misstatements and exaggerations by both candidates.  It found that Kaine got out “ahead of his skis” in his claims of what Clinton has achieved regarding reduction of nuclear materials in Russia and the impact of cutting taxes for the wealthiest in spurring the great recession. Pence twisted an AP report on the number of meetings that Clinton donors had to her when she was Secretary of State and was wrong on the percentage of Clinton Foundation money that goes to charity. His claim regarding a reduction in and weakening of the U.S. Navy was also off base.  These are just some of the examples the Post found.

Pence’s job last night was to defend the indefensible, and he couldn’t do it. What he could do is position himself in the eyes of the GOP conservative establishment as a plausible presidential candidate for 2020. Depending on your point of view, he either refused to be baited or failed to support his running mate. He even advocated positions that Trump has not.

But 2020 is a long  way from now and assumes a turn of events on November 8 that is by no means guaranteed. Actuarially speaking, the Vice Presidential nominees are more relevant this year, and last night’s debate was a useful introduction to two unknowns, who could actually be called on to serve if necessary. In Pence’s case, it left some Republican and undecided viewers wishing the GOP ticket were reversed. All in all, however, last night’s debate will probably be but a blip on the screen when we go to the polls to cast our votes.

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An open letter to my grandson about the election

college-campusDear Jacob, This is your first Presidential election, and I know you understand the importance of your vote – especially since you’re casting your ballot from college in Ohio rather than in Massachusetts. You, as did so many of your Oberlin classmates and other millennials, voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary. The Vermont Senator is about the same age as your grandparents but spoke up on issues that really matter for you and your friends: student debt, climate change,  health care for all, economic and social inequities, and avoiding war.  Not that your grandparents lacked concern. We mostly just doubted Bernie’s ability to make it all happen and, in the process to pay for his programs. The question today is: given the choice you now face, what do you do with your all-important vote on November 6.

Many millennials are mulling a third party vote or, worse, not voting at all. I’m deeply relieved to learn that you and many of your friends understand that there are really only two of the four candidates who can win the Presidency and that there is a real possibility that the winner will be Donald Trump. This must not happen, which is why Bernie is out campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Bernie knows we can’t have a leader of the free world who is a pathological liar;  whose temperament is so volatile that having possession of the nuclear code presents a clear and present danger at home and around the world; whose core values are racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Look at The Washington Post editorials this week on the great dangers Donald Trump can do as Chief Executive without regard to who controls Congress.

I acknowledge that Hillary is also seen as lying, and is disliked and distrusted by a majority of the American people, nearly as much as Trump. But there is no equivalency here. Of the four candidates, she is the only one with the temperament, experience and intelligence to serve as President. It’s why newspapers across the country, even papers that have never endorsed a Democrat, have endorsed a Democrat this year.

Of course millennials are fed up with Washington gridlock and the traditional way of doing (or not doing) the work of the people. (So are we.) Hillary is seen as the status quo, which, when you think of it, is odd for the first potential woman President in the centuries since the country’s founding.  Casting a vote for anyone other than Hillary is either voting for a man totally unfit to be President, another woman (Jill Stein) who, despite superficially acceptable positions on some issues, appears ditsy and not a credible candidate, or former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate.

At first blush, Johnson would seem to be a reasonable alternative as a protest vote. Libertarians say they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. So are we. But look at the implications of his party’s platform.   He opposes the income tax, so that means no money for education, health care, housing, Social Security, infrastructure. He opposes the minimum wage as well as government action on climate change.  When he campaigns, he often seems befuddled by well-known facts (“What is Aleppo?”), can’t name a single world leader whom he admires and displays perplexing behaviors (like talking with his tongue outside his mouth) when being interviewed. Why waste your vote on someone like that when every vote counts to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.

Please spread the word, Jacob. Add it to your pre-election day to-do list. It’s easy, especially for a first-time voter, to lament having to choose among flawed candidates. Papa and I have learned over a lifetime we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Democracy often means that, if the choices aren’t perfect, we can’t walk away.

It might be easy to take a pass and head for the library, class or Frisbee field rather than become engaged in the campaign and go to the polls. But the stakes have never been greater for the lives you and your friends will lead long after Papa and I are gone.

We love you, and, by the way, the popcorn is on the way.

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Girl Trumps Boy

debate-9-26-16Call it the big Whew!  After weeks of shrinking polls numbers for Hillary Clinton and small but steady gains in momentum for Donald Trump, voters were finally able to see them one on one. What they saw was a clear case why Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States. More importantly, they were able to see why Hillary Clinton is.

Trump’s strongest points were twofold: First, that Hillary Clinton, after a 30+ year career in public service,  represents the past, whereas he represents change.  Historically, this is a change election. (And many Trump supporters and undecideds unsettlingly say the devil you don’t know is better than the devil you do know.)  Second, Trump showed how squirmy Clinton is on the Trans Pacific Partnership.  She didn’t do well wiggling away from her erstwhile position supporting TPP as the “gold standard” of trade pacts.  Other than that, Trump showed himself to be ignorant, unpleasant, rude (sneering, interrupting his opponent, talking over her), undisciplined, aggressively obnoxious (or is that obnoxiously aggressive?) – a braggart and self-referential.  A blatant liar. Totally unpresidential. (Check out the Washington Post debate fact checker for the most thorough analysis of truth versus fiction.)

Preparation matters, and Clinton was choreographed perfectly. She was steady at the helm, focused on policy, articulated a vision, drove the conversation, poked holes in Trump’s assertions while not missing an opportunity to point out his contradictions, lies, lack of substance, instability.  She was pleasant, occasionally warm and humorous, poised but not studied (especially in her reaction shots), energetic, informative, not defensive. When she answered him on her missing emails, she succinctly apologized and took responsibility but didn’t allow herself to get mired in the issue. Trump surprisingly gave her a pass. All the while, she baited him to distraction.

She effectively slammed him on taxes (his pro-wealth tax plan and his refusal to disclose his own tax returns), race relations, ISIS and domestic terrorism, his “trumped up trickle down” economics, his interpretation of street crime data and wish to return to “stop and frisk” policing that a federal court just deemed unconstitutional. All these issues aside, the most enduring takeaway short term may be Clinton’s use of Trump’s coarse treatment of Miss Universe Alicia Machado and her post-pageant weight gain.  It was a trifecta for Clinton, as Trump, in one move, offended women, especially those who struggle with their weight (as in, most of us) and Hispanics, and he failed to pay what he owed her, echoing his history of stiffing small business people.

There are many other subjects that were never discussed last night, including health care,  immigration, and the Supreme Court.  One may reasonably expect those issues to come up when the candidates meet again on October 9th. But which Donald Trump will show up on that night, and what form will his counter-punching take?

Last night’s eighty million viewers were  the most ever to watch a Presidential debate. But who will be in the likely smaller audience next time?  Diehard supporters, or persuadables?   I look forward to the next public opinion polls to see whether and to what extent Clinton moved the needle, reclaiming some of her post convention support.

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