Chapter One From Vertigo


Historically, schools have been viewed as safeguards of societal safety, stability, and civility. Since 1982, however, state and federal policymakers have sought to disrupt the so-called “tide of mediocrity,” which Secretary of Education Terrel Howard Bell once suggested had been plaguing American public schools.1 In practice, this has meant sowing the seeds of parent choice and the privatization of public schools. This ideology, often called neoliberalism, is a political economic theory which posits that societal well-being is best achieved by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. Anthropologist David Harvey (2007) adds that, because these freedoms are guaranteed in the marketplace under neoliberal policy, each individual is thus held responsible and accountable for his or her own actions and well-being.2 These ideas of entrepreneurial freedom, strong private property rights, free markets, and personal accountability, he contends, extend into and affect all realms, including those of education, healthcare, and even pensions.3

Ultimately, however, the implementation of this ideology has led to disruption and a nearly perpetual wave of uncertainty and ambiguity, when we know that stable and consistent environments are needed to support student learning. Federal, state, and private-for-profit interests have become increasingly influential within the realm of public education. Reduced regulation of charter schools has fostered competition between public education and other state-supported alternatives for students, money, and support—even when, oftentimes, those alternatives have not been held to the same expectations and accountability to adequately and equally service all students and their families. In sum, public accountability is, only naturally, often absent in an era of privatization. Yet public accountability levied by state and federal mandates has increased since 2002 over the public schools.

The truth, however, of how district leaders must respond in these turbulent and disruptive times can be found in the same place as always: in the creation of conditions for student success at the local school and classroom levels. We believe school districts across the nation have had to develop responses to state and federal mandates that have impacted local funding of education, teacher preparation, promotion, salary, and retention of quality teachers, student and teacher assessments, and other accountability measures that are not related to preparing students for post-school life in the 21st century. 

School “Choice”

We often hear about the amount of resources it takes to educate children in urban schools in disadvantaged areas, especially those characterized as “failing.” Public schools are being structurally dismantled by the political “gift” of school choice and bias access to for-profit companies disguised as turnaround school improvement options for “failing schools.” In reality, this is an assault on public education—the institution that never has turned its back on children in any of its communities.

This assault erodes the commitment to build a public that is diverse and inclusive. The last four years we have seen the impact of divisive national leadership eroding community institutions and structures and well-being. From health care to policing to education,  a true public1 requires common experiences and association, allowing relationships between different social classes and races and the ability to merge in a common space. 

Neil Postman, famous American cultural critic on education, wrote that schooling is about making a life, not just making a living. He argued it is “the central institution through which the young might find reasons for continuing to educate themselves.”4 This purpose for schooling, along with the need to create an equitable society that respects and cares for one another, are two of the most significant antidotes to what we are witnessing in our divided and polarized country today.  

We know private school choice vouchers, charter schools, and other for-profit entities have been touted as better educational options for students in urban areas where there are a large number of “D” and “F” schools (covered in greater depth in Chapter Two). Most of the for-profit options are from companies that enter these vulnerable communities with little or no history of their traditions and customs. They have little knowledge of the culture and norms as they attempt to “turnaround” these schools. The general public has been led to believe that public education in their communities is failing their children through political zip code reports. Intentional state policy that pushes school choice through charters and for-profit vendors as a better option for students only devalues public schooling.

USA Today, (2013) reports, Indiana tax dollars may be used to finance private school tuition under the state’s voucher program, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously. The ruling on a teacher’s union-supported lawsuit from 2011 ends the legal challenge to the broad program at the state level.  Indiana cites, “We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the choice scholarship program, is within the legislature’s power under Article 8, Section1. The case began after the program was created in 2011 when a group of teachers, school officials and parents who opposed voucher sued the state, arguing the program was unconstitutional. Vouchers allow low-income families to redirect tax dollars from their local public-school district to pay tuition when children transfer to private schools. These circumstances have occurred in states around the country and are not unique to the Midwest and the South where we both have worked and consulted for example in Michigan and Mississippi and Florida.

All parents want is their child’s future to be brighter and more fulfilling than their own. So, when they are promised a better educational opportunity, they are likely to consider that option seriously. But how does this choice impact the neighborhood schools? Namely, it impacts funding. Those charters take enrollment from the public schools and the tuition money attached to those students moving to charters or private schools. Private school vouchers dismantle and destabilize the support structure of the local public-school district. Clearly many public schools can do better, but when resources are taken from our most vulnerable schools and given to charters, private, for-profits, and wealthier districts, how do they have an equal chance for success? From the School Choice Fact Sheet in 2019, we learn that there are 56 publicly funded private school choice options in 26 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. These schools are serving over 500,000 students and have doubled since 2012. There are eight types of programs that filter public money to these choice programs. 

The table below offers a quick review.

Types of Publicly Funded Choice Programs

Educational Savings Accounts – parents choose approved educational expenses placed in an account to customize a program for their child  in six states 

Scholarship Tax Credit Programs – states provide incentives for business and individuals to donate to nonprofit organizations to provide scholarships to students in eighteen states

Voucher Programs – dollars follow the child to choose a private school and receive a state-funded scholarship to pay tuition in thirteen states and D.C.

Parental Tax Credit Programs – individual state income tax credits that include private school tuition in two states only

Charter Schools – Public schools run by educators, community bodies, promoting innovative and specialized educational programs

Public School Choice – Open enrollment that allows students attending poor performing schools to attend other higher performing schools inside or outside their assigned school district

Course Choice – allows K-12 both public and private providers to enroll in individual course options using state funds offered in traditional and on-line blended formats

Virtual Schools – In-line education, allows students to take one or all school courses on-line

We know it is hard to educate a child living in poverty. There are more health, economic, transportation, and household needs; deeper needs for a safe and nurturing upbringing; and certainly often, more hunger. But, with high quality, well-paid teachers and a safe school environment that attends to nutrition and health needs, these students can learn, can thrive. They may not learn at the same rate, time, and/or the same way, but all students can learn, especially with personalized teaching and the support to become self-directed learners through targeted instruction incorporating digital content tailored to their developmental level. 

So, this is about (politics!) the elimination and reduction of public resources and pay for teachers who make a difference in the daily lives of students. The current climate is to privatize as much of the public education sector as possible to dilute its political influence in the local community. The struggle for control over the public’s purse strings leads to maintaining inequity through reducing financial resources for low socio-economic districts without political leaders with influence who can fight for their community. 

Warren Township

Across the country, the economy is changing. Innovation and engineering are at the forefront of conversations about the unemployable workforce in America. New technologies have yielded few opportunities for bygone industrial communities left behind, which have ravished the spirit of lower and middle-class families. Few communities have the infrastructure to coordinate with businesses and offer a career education to accommodate this ever-changing shift in demand. Warren is a school district that in the 90s had a 98 percent graduation rate with 20 percent of families living in poverty. Today’s graduation rate is 89.7 percent with the help of student access to evening and night school for credits recovery. The poverty level surpasses 75 percent. The number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL) at 78 percent, meaning it is considered a high-poverty school district Superintendent’s Report to the Board (2017-2018).5  

The voucher money pouring into private schools in the name of helping under privileged students is criminal. Steven Hinnefeld, School Matters K-12 education in Indiana,(2019) states Indiana Republican legislators are proposing to increase state funding for some students who receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools.  “They want to add a new category of voucher, bridging the gap between low-income families that qualify by family income for free and reduced price school lunches qualify for a voucher worth 90 percent of the state per-pupil funding received by their local school district. A family of four could make up to  $58,000 a year and qualify for a 70 percent voucher. At current funding levels, he continues “that voucher would be 3,700 per child, on average – which is close to the full cost tuition at many private religious schools in Indiana,”6  allowing parents to move their student to a private school.

The public school in the area of the private school is responsible for providing service to private school special education and the students the school deems having difficulty learning. These are additional Title I and special education funds that are being siphoned from programs at the district level.

The Warren team believed the answer to the change in complexity index was to find education advocates in the community willing to run for local and state office to challenge state representatives and legislators who limit public school support. As superintendents, we know that after a charter school is closed in a district and resources have been allocated for the year, they return to the local district (after the state has allocated money for districts for the year based on a September enrollment count ADM) without the dollars following that student for that year. This happens over and over in Indiana and across the nation. Every student in America deserves a great school regardless of location. Every school deserves to have a good teacher in every classroom who is paid a living wage. 

Identifying Vertigo

I was a superintendent for six years, deputy superintendent for two years, associate one and assistant to the superintendent for two years. I was also a middle school assistant principal for three years, and opened an elementary school and within five years the school community celebrated the honor of National Blue Ribbon School. My district team uncovered issues that our school district was wrestling with over the past ten years. My team navigated these turbulent times by creating innovative local responses to advance our goals for preparing students for post-school life. I have identified the lessons learned into eight challenges, and offer the implications for others to consider in moving their districts forward toward their own ascending innovative learning goals. 

I have included my Warren Township district team’s research used to inform the work of others, templates for district narratives, and frameworks for planning and organizing district work from the central office to the classroom for others to emulate. This book captures how a collaborative district leadership team came together to build a coherent message that connected students, staff, and community in a common pursuit of transformative purpose for learning. Specifically, I suggest that this book’s distinctive contributions include how to respond to a sample of needs and issues common to many districts.

If schools are indeed to be the safeguards of safety, stability, and civility, as superintendents we must prioritize the well-being of students through positive dispositions towards learning and leading a fulfilling life; through prioritizing high levels of student engagement with learning, with their schools, and with their communities; with caring student and adult relationships forming the foundation of in-school life; through purpose-driven, meaningful learning and a commitment to post-graduate success; and, finally, by establishing accomplishment in academic, social, and extracurricular arenas as the chief goal for every student. 

These eight challenges serve as the foundation of the book, each chapter devoted to one challenge. These issues my district dealt with demonstrate  as a superintendent with district level colleagues, and school principals thrived in a highly collaborative culture driven by a clear purpose, bounded by a set of core values, and guided by a powerful mission to prepare students for success in college and beyond. With this book, I sought to capture a leadership-based educational phenomenon which is often found but less often documented. In this district case study, I hope you find inspiring leadership practices initiated by leaders in our cabinet, principals, and instructional specialists, who came together and created a personalized learning environment for teachers and students alike. This was an environment infused with technology; clever opportunism; and a positive, cooperative, and appreciative use of all the district’s human resources and capital. It was an environment driven by and built around a philosophy of continuous improvement. 

I believe this book demonstrates that local leadership matters at every level of a school system, and that the best leadership is driven by a positive and optimistic vision of the future and a concrete set of internal core values to guide decision-making processes from the level of the school board and district office to the levels of individual schools and classrooms. Stability of leadership, combined with a data-driven teaching staff, helped this district to accomplish the goals it set for itself. Internal accountability in the public sector is what matters most—not the pressures of external forces. For if we are to function in a neoliberal era of loosened marketplace constraints and expanded personal accountability, then we need to conceptualize a school district as an individual, one whose duty is to be personally accountable to itself when the federal government won’t hold it to the necessary standards. 

I authored this book with the support of my colleague and husband, Leonard Burrello, an Emeritus Professor at Indiana University. He analyzed the data that led to the district team’s theme that are the foundation of this book. I cannot thank him enough for helping me share this district case study over the entire ten-year period this book covers. This book is dedicated to the Warren District team and those who follow. 

Let’s begin.