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A Monday mix: GOP’s shifting view on education; virtual schools’ performance; and a ‘U’ efficiency

Today, for your surfing pleasure and to buy Your Humble Blogger a little time to get her own students ready for a new school year, we offer links to items of interest, with annotations.

First, from ever-alert reader Ray Schoch, comes a terrific story in Slate about Michele Bachmann’s education philosophies and what they portend. Namely that the Republican right has catapulted right past education reform as an agenda item to a flat-out assault on schools.

Read it and weep:

“As recently as a decade ago, Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain, and John Boehner embraced bipartisan, standards-and-accountability education reform as a pro-business venture, a way to make American workers and firms more competitive in the global marketplace,” the site reports. “Now we are seeing the GOP acquiesce to the anti-government, Christian-right view of education epitomized by Bachmann, in which public schools are regarded not as engines for economic growth or academic achievement, but as potential moral corrupters of the nation’s youth.”

Similar arguments
Next, for anyone who has followed the back and forth over the state Department of Education’s efforts to close Blue Sky Online, an entirely virtual high school with a bricks-and-mortar office in West St. Paul, an update.

According to two articles in the Reading Eagle, there’s a remarkably similar tug-of-war unspooling in Reading, Pa. According to the paper (via Education Week, which seems to leave stories up longer), seven of that state’s 11 online schools failed to make the grade on standardized tests.

What’s interesting about this is that the arguments offered by the schools’ defenders are pretty much the same as those made by Blue Sky: Unlike traditional schools, online programs attract students who don’t fit in elsewhere. While some are high-fliers, a disproportionate number have issues that make it impossible for them to show up at a school and rub shoulders with other young people for a set period of time, much less excel academically.

Also problematic, they are comparably expensive, which you might not think if you assume, as most people wrongly do at first, that doing away with the classroom creates big efficiencies.

A snippet:

Dr. Jim Hanak, CEO of Pennsylvania Leadership Cyber Charter School, “also said cybercharters are impacted by the types of students who choose to attend. For the most part, he said, they are either the top performers or the bottom.

“’For many, we are the school of last resort,’ he said, explaining that the low-end students often have disciplinary problems or arrive several grade levels behind. ‘They’re really misplaced in our school, but we’re a public school so we can’t turn them away.’

“Hanak said he believes the increasing pressure of [Pennsylvania’s version of the No Child Left Behind tests] is leading some districts to push their struggling students to cybercharters.

“‘We are finding more and more, because of the pressures of [adequate yearly progress], schools tell struggling kids to try a charter school,’ he said. ‘And all they’re doing is dropping their trouble students on us.’ ”

Harder to pass muster under NCLB
Crazier allegations have been launched. Pennsylvania is one of a number of places where ranking school administrators are suspected of encouraging teachers to alter test scores to cope with the dramatic increase in pressure as it becomes harder for even great schools to pass muster under the terms of NCLB, which Congress nonetheless hasn’t managed to replace.

Blue Sky’s leaders have argued that the school serves lots of kids who would simply drop out if they couldn’t attend class on the Internet. Among them are young people with serious mental illnesses, kids who live in hamlets far from corporeal schools, bullying victims, single parents and kids who, because they already travel for a living or are transient because of some misfortune, don’t wake up in the same place every day.

It’s a compelling argument, and one I was prepared to reiterate after spending half a day attending school “at” Blue Sky earlier this year.

And yet the truly worthwhile take away from the failure that is NCLB is that it is time to stop arguing that circumstance prevents certain kids from achieving. Criticize all you want, but would we allow a school or a district to argue that its kids should get a pass because they are poor? Minorities? Learning English?  

I offer the comment thread for those of you who wish to talk amongst yourselves.

Hearing in September
In any case, Blue Sky reports that its day in court — the hearing it sued to win before a state administrative law judge, which was postponed in June at DoE’s request — has now been scheduled for Sept. 26, 27 and 28. MDE gets the first day, BlueSky gets the second day, and the school’s charter authorizer gets the third day.

“We feel like it is unfortunate, though, that MDE is unwilling to allow us additional time to work something out with another district such as West St. Paul,” which had considered taking Blue Sky on as a mainline public school.

“As you can imagine, working out the details for that alternative is complex, involves a great number of details, and is not something that can be done in a couple weeks. It will likely take months and even up to a year to do in a manner that will have the least amount of impact on students, budgets, staff, etc.”

Stay tuned.

Projected $3.1 million savings per year
Finally, the University of Minnesota reports that it has spent $1.5 million on new cleaning equipment, which will pay for itself in four to six months and then save the U $3.1 million per year in custodial expenses. There will be 52 fewer staff positions, but no involuntary layoffs.

One change will be that the cleaning of U facilities will be organized by task, not by physical area. This has caused the union that represents the custodians to lament that they will be robbed of pride of ownership. The union has filed a grievance.

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