The education world was aflame this week after the revelations that a woman appointed to the Denver Board of Education faced charges and jail time over “child abuse” a decade ago, which were not totally revealed in statements made available to the public.
MiDian Holmes is a parent involved with Stand for Children, who has tried before to take the next step in education policy by stepping forward for consideration for board vacancies, the first time being when a previous board rep for Northeast Denver, Nate Easley stepped aside in 2010. She has been a frequent fixture of rallies organized by Stand for Children and is prominently featured on many of their marketing materials. She has lent her voice and face to their initiatives.
A quick primer on Stand for Children and education “reform”
For those who aren’t up to speed on the education policy train wreck that is Stand for Children, they are a national group funded by shady undisclosed individual donors, with donations as high as $200,000 apiece, to impose free-market methods to improve “performance.” They will do ANYTHING to further this agenda, even fund candidates and funnel money into shadowy 527 organizations to fund attack ads and impact public opinion against education as a public investment. Their board of directors includes veterans of venture capital, investment management and private equity investment, as well as a few socialites with non-profit foundation experience. One lobe of the organization is incorporated as a 501 (c)(4), which means that as a “social welfare organization,” they are allowed under the tax code to lobby elected officials and affect public policy.
Strangely enough, the lobbying they do always benefits school privatizers.
Locally, Stand for Children has been the prime advocate for the worst of zero-tolerance and “no excuses” schools specifically geared toward working-class students of color. What do I mean by zero tolerance? Essentially, it’s a rigid, blanket set of punishments that are applied regardless of the circumstances. Mental Health America points out concerns that use of “zero tolerance policies results in part from the broad and vague definition of offenses and the inconsistent and sometimes overzealous application of consequences, especially as they relate to students from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.”
The schools that most notoriously use these policies include KIPP, STRIVE, SOAR and others. While professionally-trained, certified teachers have coping skills to help diffuse behavior flare-ups (not always successfully, I have to point out), these charter schools have whole staffs of untrained Teach for America or similar recruits, who receive only around five or six week’s training for our classrooms and have no education degrees. Why? Because these schools operate on “performance” models, with boards stacked with veterans of the free market, they believe in keeping down costs. Experienced, certified teachers just cost more, and most charter school teachers are paid around $10,000 less per year than public school teachers. And the majority of these McTeachers are only sticking around for two years, so they help prop up Denver’s weak pension system but will never be able to draw from it.
Because these teachers are not sufficiently trained in how to teach children, the schools have to rely on a curriculum focused nearly exclusively on what shows up on the state standardized tests. There have been some forays into providing a more well-rounded program for some charter school students, but these schools don’t perform as well as they’re touted in presentations to the school board for approval. We know from extensive research that the best that standardized tests can do is measure who is poor and who isn’t.
These schools operate on some pretty racist philosophies, too. They brag of “character education,” and they believe our kids need moral training, as if living as a working-class kid isn’t character building enough. It’s the educational version of Bill Cosby yelling at youth to pull up their pants, but on steroids.
In addition, to keep costs down, you certainly don’t want to have a robust range of services at the school. There are hardly any counselors, restorative justice personnel, nurses or other service providers who could help a youth succeed. Recently, Denver’s charter schools have started hiring personnel to handle students with disabilities, but often those personnel are woefully under-prepared as well. They are doing the absolute least to stay within compliance of federal disability laws, because servicing students properly takes money.
Even worse, these policies have crept into the way students in public schools are dealt with, since the real rationale for the existence of Teach for America is to get their recruits into district leadership and elected office. As restorative justice counselors in our public schools are whittled away, more and more dependence on zero tolerance behavior modification is used, with less-than-positive consequences. The most recent example is the way that young Shani, a freshman at Denver’s Northfield High, was wrestled and manhandled for wearing a headband that was seen out of compliance with the school’s dress code.
It should be pointed out that these zero-tolerance charter schools are nearly exclusively full of black and Latino students. They are marketed almost entirely to working-class neighborhoods of color, and the school recruiters are allowed to plunder DPS student data to cherry pick their recruitment targets. But even with cherry-picking, they still show some of the largest student “attrition” rates anywhere, and they inflate their graduation rates by conveniently sidestepping the fact that while most students in a graduation class are graduating, the lion’s share of the students they started school with have been pushed out. Even a school like DSST only has a true graduation rate of around 65 percent, when you compare the size of the 9th grade class to how it looks at 12th grade.
In fact, these schools have even received national attention for the way they have exacerbated segregation among Denver’s schools.
This is the world that Stand for Children has advocated for. Their real leaders believe that this is the way working-class students of color should be treated. Their policies lay bare a deeply-held belief that working-class kids are deficient.
And this is the world that MiDian Holmes advocates for.
Reflecting on Holmes’ situation
It was reported that a decade ago, as a single mother of three children, Holmes left her children alone possibly twice, once for more than eight hours and was caught for it. It was also reported that she served 15 days in jail because she would not participate in parenting classes, as well as some murky aside that she didn’t pay taxes or something like that.
Having been a working-class, single mother myself, I can pretty much tell you what happened. It’s such a common story among us: we’re trying desperately to hang onto a job that we’ve already been late to or called in sick for because of the kids, and we go to work sick ourselves because there are no more paid sick days left for us. It’s the only thing really keeping us off the street, and day care is so expensive, so we fudge a little. A lot of times, we have to negotiate with the landlord to not charge us that late charge because it’s not our fault that the pay period didn’t fall on the right day.
That’s what they call conflict resolution and balancing delicate negotiations.
We teach our kids to use the microwave and keep the curtains closed and the tv on. We ask a relative or neighbor to keep an eye out, but sometimes they don’t follow through. The kids get antsy and bored and hey! That telephone looks fun!
That’s what they call managing risk.
And those parenting classes! Today they cost around $65 per session, and they’re ordered weekly. That works out to nearly $300 a month, which even 10 years ago was a significant portion of the monthly rent bill. And then there’s the fine and court costs, which can be broken out monthly but have fees attached that are pretty steep. If you miss a payment, and if your parole officer is unnecessarily strict and already has negative attitudes about mothers of color, they will “violate” you, and you’ll end up with a bench warrant and soon in jail.
That’s what they call managing cash flow.
Holmes deserves our respect, even if she has stood by an agenda that hurts our communities and views our kids just as negatively as the courts did with her.
Did she realize that when she signed up to be the face of Stand for Children? It’s really hard to say. When your life is like ours, when you get what looks like a break, you “go hard.” I’ve done it myself, even positioned myself as the face of color for things white liberals want. Eventually, though, you realize that you’re being used, and you return to community and work toward the collective good and not for life rafts like charter schools for cherry-picked kids of color. Hopefully.
At any rate, if the “reformies” are really about the good of our communities, if they really do believe the “grit” spin, they should be able to see that MiDian Holmes, regardless of my opinion about her policies, is the model of grit. Going to the mat for the good of your kids, regardless of the consequences, and even managing to squeeze in some college attendance, is backbone that would make the tycoons of the Gilded Age jealous.
Maybe it’s time for the neoliberals of this town to admit that the chips are stacked against some of us, and no amount of “character education” is going to make things easier. It’s really about haves vs. have-nots, and oftentimes, the have-nots are people that look like MiDian Holmes and like me.
If the “reformies” really gave a damn about character, they would reward her for her loyalty and issue a press release encouraging her to stay the course and not decline the appointment after all. They would stand by her in a press conference and boldly tell the city that Holmes’ experience is the same as so many other DPS families (70% are considered low income, in fact), that the system is rigged against working-class families, and that her life experience is what the board needs to consider as they create policies to support students.
I guess the “education reform” agenda really is about extracting wealth from the working-class after all, because they clearly don’t stand by the “character education” they say our kids need.