August 11, 2023

John Thompson: Walters And Tulsa Schools

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John Thompson keeps an eye on shenanigans in Oklahoma, and these days there are plenty.

We’ve known that State Superintendent Ryan Walters was rapidly ramping up his attacks on public education, especially the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), but the intensity of his assaults keeps growing at a frightening rate. Even though I’ve been worrying that Walters would combine the destructive rightwing extremists’ venom with the worst of the discredited neo-liberal corporate privatization reforms, it sounds like on August 24, he may do it in the worse possible way. Rather than remove the TPS’s accreditation and/or its superintendent, Walters may order a rushed takeover of the district patterned after the recent takeover of Houston’s schools.

As Nondoc reported on Tuesday, on Saturday Walters said at a Moms for Liberty event, “Tulsa Public Schools is getting money from the Chinese communist government,” He said, “They funneled it through a nonprofit — I mean, money-laundered it through a nonprofit in Texas.” On Monday, “Walters appeared at the Tulsa County Republican Party headquarters to discuss the district,” saying that it must “Reorient finances to serve students, increase reading proficiency scores to the state average, and lift its schools off of the state F-list.” “Now,” Nondoc reports, “state board members could choose to place TPS on full probation.” Moreover, Walters has “also declined to rule out a non-accreditation vote on TPS, though it is unclear how that action would play out for a district of 33,000 students after the school year has already started.”

Clearly, the removal of Superintendent Deborah Gist is a major priority. Ironically, Walters is challenging the honesty of TPS administrators as his “administration of federal GEER funds is being investigated by FBI agents and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry.”

Even worse, Walters says he is regularly consulting with the Texas education commissioner, Mike Morath, about “strategies Texas used in its takeover of HISD.” The new Houston superintendent, Mike Miles, has long relied on mass exiting of teachers, and he’s already ordered educators at 28 schools to reapply for their jobs, and ordered the closures of many  “reformed” schools’ libraries. So, it is no surprise that the President of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, Shawna Mott-Wright, says that “the uncertainty over the district’s future already has some teachers stepping away from their jobs.”

In response, TPS board member, Jennettie Marshall, “said during the board’s 90-minute discussion of the district’s accreditation status. ‘We are under attack. If you’re not keeping up with Houston, … if we continue the course we’re on, that’s where we’re headed. That shouldn’t be.’” She warned, “We can’t afford to lose our educators, support groups and people who provide wraparound services. We can’t afford for this district to lose its accreditation.”

To understand why Walters’ new attack could be an existential threat to public education in Tulsa, one should listen to Nancy Bailey’s analysis of such takeovers:

State takeovers aren’t new. Nor are they known for innovation, but for creating school voids, cutting services, and firing key staff, promising to close learning gaps. Takeovers usually only weaken schools, breaking them up and leaving communities with fewer and poorer schools.

Moreover, the Hechinger Report cited a study by Brown University and the University of Virginia which “looked at all 35 state takeovers between 2011 and 2016. ‘On average, we find no evidence that takeover generates academic benefits.’” But the Hechinger Report added, “Race, meanwhile, plays a role in the likelihood of a district being taken over.”

The HIDC takeover campaign sped up in 2018 when “four of Houston’s 274 schools, all of them in the city’s economically distressed north and east sides, hadn’t met the standards for four years running.” By the time the takeover was ordered, “all but one of the district’s four failing schools was meeting state standards” but a rule change caused Phillis Wheatley High School to “narrowly” miss the mark. By 2021-22, Phyllis Wheatley had already improved from an F to a high C grade. Persisting in the takeover thus added support to researchers who concluded, “Now red-state governors increasingly use the takeovers to undermine the political power of cities, particularly those governed by Black and Hispanic leaders.”

We must also remember the history of the disastrous reigns of non-educator Mike Miles, a Broad Foundation corporate reform trainee, who Texas commissioner Morath placed in charge of Houston. When Miles was selected, apparently nobody asked about “the 26% drop in high school enrollment during the 6 years he was superintendent over Harrison School District Two in Colorado.” In Dallas, Miles set a target of “at least 75 percent of the schools are ‘partially proficient’ in four areas that focus on classroom instruction.” One of many reasons why that goal was impossible was “the loss of 6000 teachers in just three years.” His dictatorial mindset was illustrated by Miles ordering the removal by the police of a board member visiting a middle school where he had “replaced the principal, two assistant principals and 10 teachers.”

Dallas student outcomes had been increasing before Miles took over but student performance largely stagnated during his administration. As the Dallas Morning News reported, his tenure was marked by “disruptions, scandals, clashes.”

Now, Houston is facing the same situation where “sweeping changes include longer instructional days, lessons scripted by planners, not teachers, and new evaluations for educators that tie pay to academic performance.” The focus will be on math and reading. Cameras will be placed in each classroom to monitor behavior. Not surprisingly, Nancy Bailey notes that as the “HISD is losing qualified teachers, school libraries, and librarians,” it is “advertising for 350 long-term substitutes who don’t require a college degree.” She presciently concludes, “Watch as these kinds of reforms become prevalent in other school districts if they haven’t already.”

I have long had serious problems with Superintendent Gist, but I would have never called her “Woke Barbie” as her opponents have. To me, this is similar to the situation when Democrats joined with former Rep. Liz Cheney in defending our democracy. And, if we unite, the damage that Walters is promising to inflict on the TPS, and the Tulsa metropolitan area as a whole, could undermine his extremist campaigns. On the other hand, if we don’t recognize the extent of the threats of a HISD-style takeover, he might unite the worst of the corporate reform privatizers, with his Moms for Liberty extremism, and impose irreparable damage on the TPS and other school systems.

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