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Schools Chief Calls U. S. Ruling "Ludicrous"

George Schmidt of Substance offers a telling commentary on the Chicago media's treatment of public schools. He coins a useful new term: artitorial

Here is my take on the flap over tutoring and how it should be viewed. As noted repeatedly below, the worst thing you can do to learn what's going on in Chicago is read an article published in the Chicago Tribune, or Google a major question in their archives. You might as well simply take your poison straight
from the Heritage Foundation or the Ayn Rand Institute without the middleman...

Before anyone clips and saves the article on the tutoring flap in Chicago from today's Tribune, remember that the Tribune was the outfit that promoted William Bennett's characterization of Chicago's schools as "America's worst", ignored all of the other factors undermining the ability of the public schools here to do the job, then promoted corporate style CEO led "school reform" both here and across the nation since 1995, when the first CEO (Paul Vallas) was appointed by the first mayor getting dictatorial control (Richard Daley) in any large urban school system.

The Tribune's writers and reporters spend a lot of time getting facts and very little space actually reporting them. In general, their stuff is edited to produce very slick propaganda, as this who thing regarding the tutoring under
"No Child Left Behind" shows. Someone could probably get a doctorate simply doing a 20-year study of how the Tribune sources authorities for its major education stories. Remember, this is one of the media outfits that elevated William
Bennett's ravings to the level of dogma, only now they don't usually cite the source when they quote Bennett's decades-old teacher bashing stuff. They still trace reality for public schools from the publication of "A Nation at Risk" without any critical review of that strange version of history...

Here is something to think about regarding the way the "news" was reported from yesterday...

Early yesterday morning, in response to many calls, the Chicago Board of Education announced it was holding a noon press conference to answer questions regarding the flap over the tutoring program. There were at least six TV stations
and a number of other media there (including me from Substance) when Arne Duncan, Chicago's CEO, began talking at around noon.

The Tribune writer (Stephanie Branchero) who wrote today's Tribune artitorial (that's an editorial masked as a news article) on the controversy over privatized outsourcing has been a big fan of teacher bashing and privatization for years. I could give you about a half dozen clips of her stuff, along with line-by-line analysis.

Branchero can be counted on to do stealthy teacher bashing and union bashing stories on a regular basis. She doesn't usually cover Chicago Board of Education press conferences, so it was a surprise to see her at yesterday's press
conference. Once she began asking her questions (which sounded like they were scripted by Ed Dept people) it became clear why she was on that story.

I covered yesterday's press conference at the Chicago Board of Education as well and will be reporting on the whole story over the next several months (yes, it's that big and complex a story).

Here are three things that came up that Branchero and her handlers managed to leave out so that the final "news" version corresponded as closely as possible to the take on Chicago they were getting from Eugene Hitchcock and Nina

1. Branchero's artitorial failed to note that Chicago CEO Arne Duncan was not the only person speaking yesterday who was in opposition to the Education Department's attack on Chicago's tutoring program. At the noon press conference,
Duncan was flanked by officers from the Chicago Teachers Union (Recording Secretary Mary McGuire and Financial Secretary Mark Ochoa) and by the President of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (Clarice Berry). All of them (not just Arne) pointed out the same problem. The privatized "contractors" who offer the tutoring charge more than three times what the city gets from public school teachers doing the same job.

2. I asked (interrupting a screed from Brancero) whether privatized tutors had to have the same training, credentials and supervision as the public school teachers who had been doing the tutoring. The answer (which should shock any
parent worried about whom gets control over her children) was that the corporations and other entities doing the tutoring decide who is "highly qualified" to be an after school tutor, and the only thing the Board of Education can
insist on is that they be screened for a police record. In other words, the privatized companies are not only charging double or triple what paid professionals are getting, but they are able to hire anyone for the job! (I began my question
to Duncan by noting that I'd received a phone call from a woman who'd told me she was offered $25 per hour by one of the companies to "tutor" even though she didn't have a college degree or credentials).

The story could easily have been that the privatization of tutoring under "No Child" is leaving our children open to the predations not only of the hucksters who are profiting from the programs (by charging double or triple what
would go to public school teachers doing the same work) but are leaving our children open to the predations of individuals who are (a) not qualified by any professional definition to be "teaching" kids; (b) not cleared in any reasonable way to ensure they are not child molesters, child abusers, or worse; and (c)
not supervised in any manner that would be recognized as professional supervision. Since the Tribunes owners and editors tend to come from affluent white (or even mixed) districts which aren't facing this sanction, the result is that, once again, they are subjecting urban children (mostly poor and minority) to scandalous dangers (and overcharging) that they wouldn't think of inflicting on their own children. The nannies and au pairs of the Tribune's brass and higher paid reporters get more screening than the "tutors" who are going to be left alone with our children in the cities once the privatization is fully in effect!

3. Branchero's attacks on Arne sounded as if they could have been coming straight from someone at the Department of Education. In fact, during her questions she talked about how Eugene Hitchcock and Nine Rees had both "warned" Duncan
that Chicago was in violation of the law. She had obviously been well briefed by the Bush administration, and was just as obviously not interested in anything that would contradict the Bush administration's party line.

I left that event thinking that I'd like to get a list of all the professional conference that Brancero and some of the other ideologues at the Tribune go to. I have a hunch that they are paid to attend the propaganda sessions from the Education Department, and from outfits like the Heritage Foundation, and that by the time they have been vetted by the Tribune's owners for jobs like Education Reporter they are firmly convinced that the world according to Ayn Rand
(or Grover Nordquist) really is best for the world we live in.

George Schmidt

Duncan calls U.S. ruling `ludicrous'

December 9, 2004

This story contains corrected material, published Dec. 10 and Dec. 11, 2004

Tens of thousands of struggling students have been getting help this fall through a tutoring program run by Chicago Public Schools.

But the U.S. Department of Education, which funds the program, says that Chicago has failed those students for years--that's why they need tutoring--and should not be given more federal money now to try to boost performance with after-school sessions.

On Wednesday, federal officials demanded that Chicago shut down its program, according to a letter obtained by the Tribune.

The letter says Chicago must send all its students to outside tutors by mid-January or pay for the program itself.

Nine other Illinois districts, including Elgin-based U-46, Cicero, Dolton, West Harvey-Dixmoor, North Chicago and Community Unit High School District 218 in Oak Lawn face the same sanction (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).

The decision could lead to a showdown over the controversial No Child Left Behind reforms, which require tutoring for low-income students at schools that perform poorly.

And it leaves the fate of tens of thousands of students up in the air, just a few months before they face high-stakes achievement tests.

Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan called the ruling "ludicrous" Wednesday, and said he has no intention of ending his federally funded tutoring program.

The stakes are clearly the highest in Chicago, where 80,000 students receive tutoring under the law. The district tutors about half of those students itself, spending more than $12 million, according to district figures. The rest use tutoring companies or outside agencies.

Duncan said there is no way the district could absorb the cost, and private tutors could not handle all the students eligible for help.

"Halfway through the school year, to deny children who most need help is staggering to me," Duncan said. "It shows how disconnected the federal bureaucrats are from the reality of teaching kids in urban areas.

"I plan to continue to serve these children and work with the feds to help them come to their senses."

The letter marks the first time the federal education agency has flexed its muscles in Illinois--and one of the few times it has anywhere in the nation--over the No Child Left Behind law, the most sweeping education reform in decades.

Agency officials had complained for two years that school districts were violating the spirit of the law by finding clever ways around another provision that allows students to transfer out of failing schools. Chicago, for example, barred entry into most of the better-performing schools, saying they were already crowded.

Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, warned Chicago--and hundreds of other urban districts around the country--that crowding was not an excuse to limit the transfer provision, but his agency never made much of an attempt to force changes.

U.S. Department of Education officials could not be reached for comment on the tutoring question, but in the letter, Hickok makes it clear there is no wiggle room when it comes to the tutoring provision.

He told Illinois State Board of Education officials to let him know within 30 days how they plan to make Chicago comply with the law.

Dunn's request

Hickok was responding to a request made by the state education superintendent, Randy Dunn, who had pleaded with him to relax the law for these 11 districts and allow them to tutor children after school.

A state board spokeswoman said the agency is disappointed with Hickok's response.

"We are concerned about kids, not subsections of subparts of statutes," said Rebecca Watts, spokeswoman for the state board. "Right now, we really don't know what we are going to do about this. We are going to work with the federal government and with the districts to try to resolve this issue.

"There are thousands of kids who are getting much-needed services, and we don't want to harm them in any way."

Under the federal law, schools that fail to meet test standards three years in a row are required to offer free tutoring to children. Private companies, religious institutions, schools and districts are eligible to run the tutoring programs, but the law specifically bars low-performing districts from doing so.

An entire district is identified as low performing if it fails to meet goals two years in a row. This is the first year the sanctions have applied to Illinois districts.

Low-income children in sub-par schools can choose a tutoring program from a list provided by the school district. The district must pay for that after-school academic assistance.

The battle of wills over the tutoring provision has been going on for nearly two years in Illinois.

In January 2003, the state board approved Chicago as a tutoring provider, even though it was clear it might become a problem down the road. Hickok warned then that allowing Chicago to oversee tutoring undermined the law.

"In essence, we would be saying, `Well, let's see, the school district didn't provide adequate education for students, but let's label them a supplier of tutoring services and then pay them some more money because they didn't get it right the first time,'" Hickok told the Tribune.

Fatal flaw

But Duncan and superintendents in the other districts argue that the law has a fatal flaw. Private vendors are not ready for the onslaught of students who need the academic enrichment and have been slow to respond, they argue.

Last year, thousands of Chicago students did not get the tutoring they were eligible for because the private companies had difficulty finding enough qualified tutors.

In Cicero, school officials could not find enough companies to handle the influx of bilingual students.

And in Springfield, the district could find only one company willing to help its students--and that company needed at least 48 to sign up before it would agree to come into the schools. So far, only eight Springfield students have signed up.

"You can't just snap your fingers and expect that everything will all work out just because the law demands it," says Carolyn Blackwell, who oversees federal programs in Springfield School District 186. "I guess I am not surprised that they are sticking to the letter of the law now that [President] Bush has been re-elected and says he has a mandate."

— Stephanie Banchero with commentary by George Schmidt
Chicago Tribune


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