Robert Pondiscio Calls the Social Justice Bluff

October 13, 2016

That look on someone's face When you call their bluff

Several months ago Robert Pondiscio started a little storm within the education reform movement by raising alarms regarding the movement’s heavy leftward tilt over the last several years.  I joined the fray emphasizing that the social justice takeover of ed reform organizations was politically foolish since state-based Republicans are the ones who do almost all of the work in actually adopting meaningful ed reform.  I tried to address the political foolishness of alienating your key backers while making futile attempts to woo one’s opponents by providing some basic lessons from political science.  And Matt Ladner warned ed reformers against marching into a political dead-end alley.  Many others added their two cents, including Max Eden, Rick Hess, and Derrell Bradford.

But Robert Pondiscio — the man who sparked this debate — has topped all of us with the post to end all posts on the social justice wars in ed reform.  It is part of an excellent forum that Education Next has organized on the topic.  Pondiscio accurately describes the angry reaction of white ed reform leaders to his original piece and their call to remedy the fact that “The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.”

In his new piece Pondiscio calls their bluff.  If creating greater diversity among ed reform leaders is a priority for these white social justice leaders, why don’t they step aside and let more people of color take their jobs?  They say actions speak louder than words, unless, as it appears, these leaders care more about words than actions.  The failure of these national organizations to cause much action in changing state policies seems to reinforce the point.

Here’s the heart of Pondiscio’s piece:

The founder and leader of Education Post is Peter Cunningham, who was an assistant secretary for communication at the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan, with whom he also served when Duncan ran Chicago Public Schools a decade ago. Cunningham has worked in PR, politics, and for small weekly newspapers but never, to my knowledge, as a teacher. He’s also a middle-aged white man. He is, in the argot of social justice thought, deeply privileged….  But if Education Post is serious about “elevating the voices” of the communities it serves, at some point it should be run—should it not?—by someone representative of those communities.

What about now? What about right now? What about Marilyn Anderson Rhames?

I ask this not to be mischievous, but to call the question and settle one of ed reform’s most sensitive debates. When I published my now-infamous piece earlier this year, it prompted, in addition to Rhames’ piece and others, an “open letter” signed by 170 “white education leaders” (including, not incidentally, much of the staff of Education Post) who took serious exception to my critique and lamented reform’s failure to put people of color in leadership positions.

“The education reform coalition has a problem,” the letter started. “Unlike other historical movements dedicated to the urgent betterment of social conditions, the most prominent leadership and voices of the school improvement coalition have not been representative of the communities that the effort hopes to serve. The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.”

All true, but this elides an awkward truth. Closing the achievement gap will take decades. Closing the leadership gap can be done this afternoon. All it takes is for the “white, privileged leaders” who signed the letter to recruit a person of color and step aside. The right person, like Rhames, might already be on staff, already contributing to the movement as a foot soldier or subordinate but not occupying a position of leadership or authority.

My paramount concern, almost completely unaddressed in the outsized reaction to my piece, remains that a militant leftward tilt in education reform endangers the longstanding bipartisan political support that has long fueled the movement. Neither do I believe that the only children poorly served by their schools are from families of color. But it makes little sense to bemoan “the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white.” This is, as Teach For America likes to tell its corps members, within your locus of control. Those who signed the “open letter” may believe they are standing on principle. But if their theory of change rests on diversifying leadership, they are mostly standing in the way.

I invite those leaders to step aside for the greater good. No more open letters. No more manifestos. No more virtue signaling on Twitter. Either you are serious about the need to diversify the leadership of the reform movement, or you are not. It simply will not do to congratulate yourselves for being “brave leaders” and cluck earnestly at conferences about the need for education reform to “look like the communities it serves” year after year, while blocking exactly those people from the positions you insist they deserve.

To be clear, I continue to question whether the ed reform movement at large is properly viewed as a race-focused “social justice” movement or a broad school improvement initiative benefitting all children, thereby serving social justice ends. But let’s not quibble. If diversity of leadership is integral to your theory of change, why not practice within your organizations? And why not do it now?

Our infant nation survived George Washington relinquishing power and returning to his fields at Mount Vernon. Ed reform will survive without its current cadre of self-flagellating white leaders.

What – what exactly – is stopping you?

For the Al: Tim and Karrie League

October 12, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So tell me if you have ever had this experience- you find some time and think about going to a see a movie. No? Well you may have noticed that we dig movies here at JPGB so play along please…

Yes-okay so you want to see a movie, you go online to see what is playing, you look at the list of films currently screening at the movie houses you frequent and you think “blech I don’t want to see any of this” or some equivalent thereof.  Just how much we are held hostage to Hollywood became even more apparent to me a few years ago when I rented a house near Zilker Park in Austin for a month. Austin at the time had five Alamo Drafthouse sites in operation, which meant that there were a consistent barrage of older, offbeat and classic films to choose between. I took the kids to see E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for instance, both of which were more fun than the How to Train Your Dragon 2 meh stuff that Hollywood happened to be shoveling out that summer.

The Drafthouse, with their combination of zany programming and out of the box thinking has brought something crucial back to film- soul. Authentic community is a treasure in life, and you simply can’t get much more of it out of a big-box theater. It is therefore with great pleasure that I nominate the founders of the Drafthouse, Tim and Karrie League, for the prestigious Al Copeland Humanitarian Award for showing us a path forward to redeeming cinema from the tedium of the factory farm film making.*

Like many great things in life, this story starts in Texas at Rice University, where Tim studied Art History and Mechanical Engineering, and Karrie majored in Biology and French literature. What do you do with that? How about “revolutionize the movie going experience” for starters. After Rice, the two opened their first theater, a prototype called the Tejon in California in 1994.  Located on the wrong side of the tracks, the couple began to develop their carnival style in an attempt to lure people to the theater. They for instance got a live band to accompany a silent film (a later Drafthouse regular.) They brought a pig to a screening of Charlotte’s Web. Unable to obtain a liquor license for the Tejon, Tim and Karrie did what a great many sensible Californians do- packed up and moved to Austin Texas in 1997.

Tim and Karrie set up shop in a former parking garage in the Warehouse district in Austin. They got the liquor license that eluded them in California. The rest is history.

Starting as a single screen, small theatre, Austin fell deeply and passionately in love with the Drafthouse. Local directors started hosting film festivals there, followed by non-locals. Some of the non-local directors bought property and became locals.

Big box theaters noticed that the Drafthouse was earning about twice as much per person and started serving food and beer. That’s all well and good, but what makes the Drafthouse the Drafthouse is culture and programming.  Examples include Master Pancake Theater (three comedians mic up on the front row and ridicule a bad movie), Hecklevision (audience text ridicule at a bad movie which appears on the screen), Midnight Blaxploitation (good grief how did this stuff get made?), Sing Alongs and Rolling Road Shows.

So sing alongs, here’s one for the ladies:

and another for Queen fans who want to put on a Freddy Mercury mustache and scream their lungs out with their favorite songs:

You of course already know about rolling road shows like Jaws on the Water:

But they’ve also gone out and about. One of my favorites was a canoe trip with a screening of Deliverance on the shore after a long day of rowing and eating pig sandwiches. They have also gone to filming locations to screen classics:

The Drafthouse is also famous for dealing with certain transgressions firmly and quickly:

Which prompted this gem (NSFW):

which was followed by a similar incident when they had to throw a Sith Lord out:

Anyhoo- thank you Tim and Karrie for making film an absolute blast. I am counting down the days until the opening of Drafthouse Phoenix.


* You may choose to infer an education analogy from this post, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Nominations Solicited for the 2016 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 6, 2016

It is time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

Last year’s winner of “The Al” was the internet humorist, Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough).  His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.  Given how much time ed reformers waste on social media, especially the soon-to-be-sold Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona.  Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, Gary Gygax, and John Lasseter.

The previous year’s winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System.  To save a life DeComo had to trick border control officials to bring a model of his artificial lung machine into the US from Canada because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA.  DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,”  Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of “The Al” was Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al beat an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and Teller, Kickstarter, and Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of “The Al” was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees:  Banksy, Ransom E. Olds, Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011 “The Al” went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon.  Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates.  Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010  winner of  “The Al” was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.  He beat out  The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

And the 2009 winner of “The Al” was  Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing,  Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban,  Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee.  If I like it, I will post it with your name attached.  Remember that the basic criteria is that we are looking for someone who significantly improved the human condition even if they made a profit in doing so.  Helping yourself does not nullify helping others.  And, like Al Copeland, nominees need not be perfect or widely recognized people.

Small Schools 18, Big Box 2

October 4, 2016
Why is this man smiling? Read on MacDuff...

Why is this man smiling? Read on MacDuff…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So last week I used an Arizona Board of Regents Report to show you the top AZ high schools year after graduation college attendance:


So now let’s take the chart immediately above, and rather than emphasize school type, let’s instead look at the number of high school students. The above chart still ranks the same 20 schools by their 2015 college attendance rates, but simply provides attendance rates.


The two large high-schools that made the list (Chaparral and Catalina Foothills) may be the most leafy of leafy suburban schools in Scottsdale and Tucson respectively. The other 18 schools in the top 20 are small charter and magnet schools. Of course a score of 18 to 2 is merely suggestive, but rigorous evaluations of small schools in New York City point to a similar conclusion: good outcomes come with small schools.


The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Nevada ESA Ruling

September 30, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve read a few school choice related Supreme Court decisions over the years, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the ruling that the Nevada Supreme Court made yesterday. To this untrained reader, it appears to be a determined exercise in cutting the baby.

The decision reads very cleanly until the matter of standing arises. Standing involves being able to demonstrate some personal harm, and the Court implicitly acknowledges a lack of harm on the part of the plaintiffs by creating an exception to standing out of whole clothe in the ruling:


So…..I am inferring from this that under the standing requirements that existed for every previous case in the history of the state of Nevada, that the Nevada Supreme Court would have felt compelled to acknowledge the obvious truth that the plaintiffs had claimed harm when in fact none actually existed. I’m no lawyer, and I don’t play one on television, but I’m also astonished that the Court felt free to willy-nilly change standing requirements unilaterally and in the late stages of an important case.  If you can explain to me how this makes the least bit of sense, and it not entirely arbitrary and capricious, please feel free to educate me in the comments.

Having performed this incredibly one sided act of mental gymnastics, the court moves on to consideration of constitutional issues. First up, our old friend the “uniformity clause.” Quite rightly, the Court squashes this bug of a claim under their boot:


Jolly good, moving on to sectarian purpose Blaine claim. This is where the Court makes a potentially very far-reaching conclusion:


Note that this was an argument that Nick Dranias and I made in our paper for the Goldwater Institute that made the case for the Arizona ESA as a replacement for the voucher program for children with disabilities: that once a set of mutual benefits between a parent and the state had been realized that funds deposited into an account were private rather than public funds. Jason does a great job of expounding on this point in his Cato post on the decision and how this precedent is followed in other policy areas. No one can claim that a state worker cannot use their salary to pay for Catholic school tuition for instance- as the check from the state is exchanged for the labor of the worker and thus becomes private funds. Likewise in an ESA, the state realizes the benefit of paying for a traditional education for the child, and the parent realizes the benefit of flexibility under the rules of the account.

The Arizona ESA decision implicitly recognized this argument, but the Nevada decision explicitly embraces it.

After that we get back into agony, with the court sifting through a complex mess of requirements and dates of bills passing. Basically in the end the court emphatically holds that ESAs are constitutional, but finds that the way the legislature funded the ESA program was itself not constitutional. Basically the program exists but currently has no funding.

So where does this leave things?  It leaves the 7,000+ students who applied for NVESA out in the cold. As the Wall Street Journal noted today, a looming special session on building a football stadium for an out of state billionaire also represents an opportunity to fund the educations of thousands of Nevada children.

Let’s see what happens next.