Feds Investigating Civil Rights Implications of School Closures in Newark

If you are middle class or rich, you are not likely to discover that anybody is planning to punish your child’s school by closing it.  School “reform” via “turnaround” happens in school districts like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Newark, but it doesn’t happen in Winnetka, Grosse Pointe, Bryn Mawr, Chagrin Falls, or Montclair.

That is because the test-and-punish mechanisms of our federal testing law No Child Left Behind and newer policies designed around its philosophy—School Improvement Grants, for example—impose sanctions (like closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, or replacing the principal and the staff) on schools where the students persistently score in the bottom 5 percent of public schools nationwide.  Such schools are virtually always in the neighborhoods of our big cities where poverty is concentrated—which means that virtually all the children are extremely poor.  In our society we blame the test scores on the school without figuring out how to ameliorate the poverty.  As the editorial board of Rethinking Schools magazine has brilliantly stated: school reform based on high-stakes testing “disguises class and race privilege as merit.”

In a situation like Newark, New Jersey, where the school district has been under state control for two decades and where the state overseer school superintendent, Cami Anderson, reports to Governor Chris Christie instead of the locally elected school board, citizens are using every avenue provided by the democratic process to protect and improve their public schools. They elected school principal and strong defender of public education Ras Baraka mayor in May, even though they knew the mayor can’t control school policy, and they filed a complaint about Cami Anderson’s One Newark school reform plan this spring with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). This despite Chris Christie’s rude rebuke: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”

New Jersey Spotlight reports that the OCR complaint was “filed in May by parent advocates who specifically cited the state-operated district’s planned closing of three schools that have predominantly African-American enrollment.”  On Tuesday, July 22, the OCR released a statement confirming, “that OCR is currently investigating whether Newark Public Schools’ enactment of the ‘One Newark’ plan at the end of the 2013-2014 school year discriminates against black children on the basis of race.  OCR’s investigation began in July 2013.  As it is an open investigation, we cannot share any further information.”

Bob Braun, longtime New Jersey reporter and now Newark blogger, reports that PULSE New Jersey, a group led by Sharon Smith, filed the complaint on May 13, as “part of its commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation.”  PULSE NJ’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Education ‘reformers’ and privatizers are targeting neighborhood schools filled with children of color, and leaving behind devastation.  By stealth, seizure, and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all.”

Smith commented on OCR’s decision to investigate:  “We are pleased that it is now open and merits investigation.  But now it is about making sure it is a thorough investigation.”

PULSE NJ is working with a much broader coalition, Journey for Justice. Bob Braun quotes Journey for Justice organizer Jitu Brown, who understands Newark’s OCR complaint in the context the policy being adopted in urban school districts across the country of “turning around” low-scoring public schools by closing them: “What has been lacking—not only in Newark, but also in places like Chicago, New York, and New Orleans—is community input to help develop plans for successful public schools.  We have been faced with top-down education policies that have failed because they lack input from the people who are most affected.”

Corinthian Colleges: For-Profit Schools Preying on the Vulnerable While Soaking Up Tax Dollars

To really grasp the significance of what is happening to Corinthian Colleges, I urge you to read Suzanne Mettler’s new book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.  The book is a broader exploration of the laws that shape policy for colleges and universities, but one of the topics it explores is the explosive growth of for-profit colleges after 2006, when Congress removed the rule that to qualify their students for federal loans, colleges must provide at least 50 percent of a student’s education in person.  In other words, buried in 2006 federal budget, Congress expanded federally backed student loans for colleges that provide 100 percent of a student’s education on-line.

Mettler describes soaring enrollments: “In the next five years after the demise of the 50 percent rule, enrollments nearly doubled in the for-profit sector, and revenues soared… The Apollo’s University of Phoenix and Kaplan, owned by the Washington Post, doubled their revenues—and the default rates of their students climbed at the same pace.” (p. 107)  The other thing that grew with soaring profits was the investment by the for-profit colleges in Congressional lobbying.  “During the 2007-2008 election season, for example, the Apollo Group played a prominent role.  Not only did it lead the for-profit colleges in campaign contributions, but by donating over $11 million, it ranked twenty-eighth among all organizations and businesses nationwide.  It spent approximately twice as much as Goldman Sachs, JP Jorgan Chase, Bank of America, Time Warner, and Walmart, among others, and three times as much as the US Chamber of Commerce.” (p. 110)

Congress has responded to this massive investment in lobbying.  A good part of the profits for such institutions comes directly from tax dollars in the form of federal student loans, and the default rates have skyrocketed along with the for-profit colleges’ profits.  Hence the story in recent weeks about Corinthian Colleges, which, according to Kevin Carey in the NY Times, recently posted enrollment of 72,000 students at 100 campuses across the United States (and, of course, on-line) .

According to a stunning investigation by Chris Kirkham last week for the Los Angeles Times, “The student loan pipeline fueled the company’s rapid enrollment growth, peaking at more than 110,000 students in 2010.  Corinthian charges students up to 10 times the cost of a comparable community college education.  That requires many of them to take on more debt than they can repay—leaving taxpayers on the hook for mass defaults.”

Corinthian became so dependent on federal student loan dollars that earlier this month when the U.S. Department of Education suspended its access to student financial aid, the company found itself insolvent. Kevin Carey reports that, “The taxpayers will be on the hook for some defaulted loans.  Others were backed by Corinthian itself, which has made expensive private loans to its own students despite knowing ahead of time that most of them would default.  It did this because by law, no more than 90 percent of the company’s revenues may come from federal financial aid.  Every dollar that Corinthian lent directly to students allowed it to receive an additional nine dollars in federal aid…. At its peak, Corinthian received more than half a billion dollars per year from the federal Pell Grant program, more than the entire University of California system.”

As the preface to its dissolution, the company will sell 85 of its Everest, Heald, and WyoTech college buildings and phase out 12 more as students complete programs in which they are currently enrolled.

Corinthian Colleges have been charging, on average, $40,000 for a two year associate’s degree.” According to Kirkham in the LA Times, “Nearly 37% of students who left Corinthian’s schools in 2008 defaulted on their loans within three years…” The LA Times report includes widespread stories of cooking the numbers on program completion and job placement.  One job placement officer at Everest College in Houston, Texas said she was told to place graduates with employers with high turnover rates.  “That allowed Everest to connect many students with the same company in a short period of time… driving up placement rates—a key metric for federal student aid eligibility.”

Reporting for the NY Times last month as the situation worsened for Corinthian, Floyd Norris disclosed that Corinthian’s problems did not begin with the crackdown by the U.S. Department of Education: “A suit filed by the California attorney general last year contended that Corinthian lied about the success of its former students as it focused on single mothers whose income was at or near the poverty line.  The suit quoted internal Corinthian documents as describing its target audience as ‘isolated’ and ‘impatient’ individuals with ‘low self-esteem.’  It said the company used high-pressure sales tactics and advertised on the Jerry Springer television show.”

When Districts Create Selective High Schools, Students Segregate by Ability. Duh?

The Hechinger Report and WBEZ Chicago just published a welcome expose by reporter Linda Lutton that confirms the obvious.  When you have school choice and when some high schools are competitive based on standardized test scores, you’ll end up with a system that sorts students by their ability as measured by test scores.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—and the father of the school-choice-driven theory of Portfolio School Reform—is quoted in Lutton’s new report as being shocked.  He says segregation by ability is an unintended consequence of his theory: “It certainly wasn’t a goal.”

And Barbara Byrd-Bennet, Chicago’s school superintendent who leads the school district whose top students are actively sorting into elite high schools, says she doesn’t believe in sorting by ability: “There’s no research to support sorting.”  Lutton explains that Byrd-Bennett, “says she, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board  ‘come from a very different belief system,’ one that opposes sorting students by achievement level.  ‘What we believe is that you’ve got to elevate, raise the level and the quality of instruction at all of our schools, including our neighborhood schools,’ said Byrd-Bennett.”  But at Marshall Metropolitan High School, whose attendance zone includes much of Chicago’s West Side, 86 percent of the students score below the district average.

According to Lutton’s report, 104 students had perfect scores on the district’s standardized EXPLORE exam, and 96 percent of these students attend Northside, Whitney Young, Payton, Lane, Lincoln Park and Jones high schools—all competitive-entry schools that accept students based on their academic records.  “Among the city’s top 2 percent of test takers (those scoring a 23, 24, or 25 on their exam) 87 percent are at those same six schools.”  By contrast, “Fifteen percent of the city’s high schools are populated with vastly disproportionate numbers of low-performing students.  More than 80 percent of incoming students at these schools score below the district average.”

There are, of course, racial implications: “Black students are most likely to be affected by sorting… African American students are doubly segregated, first by race, then by achievement… Chicago has black high schools for low achievers, black high schools for average kids, black test-in high schools for high achievers.”

Lutton describes research showing that New Orleans and New York City—both school districts that have become “portfolio”-choice school districts in the past decade—have also become increasingly segregated by students’ academic ability as measured by test scores.  She concludes: “Researchers say ‘achievement’ may be an indication of the resources students have at home.  Higher performing students’ families are better at getting information about school quality, navigating the system, and securing things like transportation to school or test prep for entrance exams.”

While Paul Hill and Barbara Byrd-Bennett may profess shock and dismay about this “unintended” sorting by academic prowess, school staff and students are not nearly so gullible.  A counselor at an elementary school, “said her elementary school sends ‘average’ students to a nearby high school that’s seen as safe, that admits no low performers, and scores at about the district average.  But she said she would not recommend the school for her top students….”   And a high school freshman tells Lutton:  “If you get straight As and you do really good on testing, the school you’ll probably get accepted into is Northside, Walter Payton, Whitney Young.”

Lutton describes one Chicago high school that remains relatively diverse because it hosts a long-standing International Baccalaureate program, a well known arts program and an attendance zone that is at least somewhat diverse.  This high school continues to make intentional efforts to mix students by ability for at least some classes.  A teacher there reports: “I feel like my lower performing students rose to the challenge.  They had great examples from their peers around them at all times.  And at the same time for some of my higher performing students, it was good for them to work with someone generally not at their level.”

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

Vergara Copycat Lawsuit in NY Attacks Teachers Instead of Injustice, Say Experts

In June of this year, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers in the case of Vergara v. California.  According to Treu’s decision, tenure protects bad teachers, bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most disadvantaged students, and the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Many speculate the case will be overturned on appeal, and Judge Treu has stayed his decision pending the appeal.

Opponents of tenure have promised to launch copycat lawsuits against school teachers’ job protections in other states. Earlier this month, such a lawsuit was filed in New York on Staten Island by a group called the New York City Parents Union. While Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, told the NY Times that her lawsuit is different because it is “not being bankrolled by outside interests,” the research blogger, Mother Crusader, has connected the group’s board members to three organizations that actively oppose teachers unions and seek to privatize public education: Democrats for Education Reform, NYCAN, and StudentsFirstNY.

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reports that Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has transformed herself into an advocate against job protections for teachers, has created her own organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, for the purpose of her crusade.  She has hired the public relations firm of former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, according to Stephanie Simon of Politico, to “lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended.”  Brown has said her organization will be involved in New York.  (This blog covered the Campbell Brown, Robert Gibbs, Ben LaBolt endeavor here.)

On Tuesday of this week, two heavyweight public school justice advocates went on the offensive against the New York attempt to claim that due process protections for teachers deny children’s civil right to an education.  Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center—both involved for years in lawsuits in New York and New Jersey to protect the rights of children to adequately funded education—published an opinion piece in the Albany Times Union.

The Staten Island lawsuit, they declare, completely misses the point: “The lawsuit gets one thing right,” they charge, “Children in high poverty, urban and rural school districts across the state are indeed being deprived of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.  What it gets completely wrong is why:  the state’s continuing failure to fairly fund high need schools so they can recruit, support and retain effective teachers and deliver rich instruction in math, science, world languages, the arts and other core subjects under optimal working conditions.”

In the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, New York’s high court defined the “sound basic education” to which all children in New York have a right. In response the New York General Assembly enacted the 2007 Foundation Aid Formula, which increased school funding across the state by more than $5 billion to be phased in over four years. However, “After two years, the state walked away from its commitment to our most disadvantaged children and schools.  The funding shortfall now totals a staggering $5.7 billion, with the greatest impact on schools with the highest need.”

According to Sciarra and Easton the shortage has “cut teachers by the thousands…. In five years, Yonkers cut 500 staff members, losing half of the reading teachers and all math coaches.  Schenectady has shed 40-50 positions annually, cutting music teachers by half, and letting go librarians, instructional coaches and writing instructors… Predictably, these staff reductions have sparked drastic increases in class size.  Teachers now routinely face classes of 30 students or more.”

Easton and Sciarra conclude: “The good news is parents and students across New York know better.  They have stepped up by the thousands to let Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators know that they will no longer tolerate an underfunded, under-resourced, third-rate education.  And they will not be distracted by frivolous, irrelevant lawsuits.”

We’ll Have to Do Something About Poverty to Improve School Achievement

In the New Yorker essay she just published on the Atlanta test-cheating scandal, Rachel Aviv quotes education researcher David Berliner: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  While research demonstrates a strong correlation between extreme family poverty and children’s struggles to achieve at school, many us living in middle and upper income communities struggle to discern how family poverty affects children and how the poverty of a neighborhood affects the public schools. We don’t spend much time in poor neighborhoods and we rarely go into a public school once our own children are grown. Today this blog will review some of the evidence, particularly about the impact of concentrated poverty, a phenomenon especially evident in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Memphis, Cleveland, and Gary.

Paul Jargowsky, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers, defines concentrated poverty as a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the people are poor.  In such neighborhoods, he writes, fewer than half the men are likely to be employed and fewer than half the children are likely to be living in a two-parent family.  This kind of poverty doubled between 1970 and 1990, writes Jargowsky, then diminished in the strong economy of the 1990s, and has risen quickly since 2000.

In his recent book, Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains whose lives are shaped by living in such circumstances: “Being raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites…  but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were…  This degree of racial inequality is not a remnant of the past….  If there is any difference between children in the previous generation and in the current one, the degree of neighborhood disadvantage experienced by African American children has worsened in the current generation…  Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” (pp. 27-29)

Cities where African American concentrated poverty is greatest, according to Jargowsky, are Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, Tallahassee, Dayton, Cleveland, Gary, Louisville, Buffalo, and Memphis.  Hispanic families also experience concentrated poverty, with the highest rates in Texas—Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville; in California—Fresno and Visalia; and in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and also in several cities in the East and Upper Midwest: Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; Milwaukee; and Hartford.

Another variable that makes an enormous difference for the children, according to Sharkey’s research, is embedded in the poverty data: “In essence, when white families live in a poor neighborhood, they typically do so for only a single generation; when they live in a rich neighborhood, they usually stay there for multiple generations.  The opposite is true for African American famlies: Neighborhood affluence is fleeting, and neighborhood poverty is most commonly multigenerational.” (p. 39, emphasis in the original)

Jargowsky contends that, “Concentration of poverty is the direct result of policy choices.  Political fragmentation means that hundreds of suburbs develop.”  “Suburbs grow much faster than is needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth.”  “By policy and tradition, we create a durable architecture of segregation that ensures the concentration of poverty.” In the long term, Jargowsky prescribes reversing the trajectory of suburbanization.

Is there a way to address today at least some of the issues for the children attending schools where segregation by economic level has become entrenched?  First, the demographic data demonstrate that today’s wave of  “portfolio school reform” that closes public schools and opens privately managed charter schools is not designed to address the primary issues in Philadelphia and Detroit and Cleveland; neither are voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. If we choose to support children living in the circumstances these researchers describe, it will be necessary to develop the political will to invest publicly in the schools in communities where poverty seems intractable.  We’ll need to provide incentives to attract the best teachers and support teachers instead of blaming them when they cannot overcome such issues on their own.  We’ll need to reduce class sizes.  We’ll need to provide the kind of wrap-around health and social services embedded in Community Schools.  We’ll need to create quality pre-Kindergarten programs to catch children up before the achievement gap gets established prior to their even beginning school. The federal government will need to increase investment in improving the public schools in our poorest communities and  find ways to create incentives to ensure that states also increase their investment in quality education for children living in poverty.

In short we’ll have to take David Berliner seriously: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  There is no excuse for the kind of punitive public education policy our nation is currently practicing.

Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores

How do things go so wrong in a huge and tragically underfunded school district?  Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor of data journalism at Temple University, has published a stunning piece in The Atlantic that explains how the School District of Philadelphia has lost control of any accurate inventory of its textbooks and their distribution and how the school district’s financial crisis has contributed to this catastrophic situation.

The stakes are high in these times when students, teachers, schools, and school districts are being held accountable by their collective students’ standardized test scores.   According to Broussard, however, having the right textbooks is more important than ever these days because textbooks are likely to be tightly linked to the students’ eventual test scores: “This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge.  As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers… Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson.  These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests… Put simply, any teacher who wants his or her students to pass the tests has to give out books from the Big Three publishers.”  Standardized tests now require students to be able to explain the rationale for their answers even on the math test—in the way it is presented in the textbook that is designed to prepare them for the test they are going to be required to take.  And as the standards change and tests are updated, school districts need to be able to replace books that quickly become dated.

Through school visits and interviews with teachers and the School District of Philadelphia’s officer for school support services, Broussard  learned that, although a data tracking system was set up several years ago to record book purchases and quantities delivered to specific schools, budget cuts in the past two years have in most of the schools eliminated the administrative staff responsible for inputting the data.   “But we forget that data and data-collection systems are created by people.  Flesh-and-blood humans need to count the books in a school and enter the numbers into a database… But severe state funding cuts over the past several years have meant cutbacks in the school district’s administrative staff.  Even the best data-collection system is useless if there are no people available to manage it.”  And then big city school districts in very poor communities must coordinate the distribution of books despite high student mobility.  “Keeping track of supplies is one problem; keeping track of the students who will use them is a whole other challenge.  In Philadelphia schools, many students are in foster care or navigating other precarious living situations, which means they frequently switch schools.”

In the past two school years, however, a  far more serious situation has arisen.  “Another problem is that there’s simply too little money in the education budget.  The Elements of Literature textbook costs $114.75.  However, in 2012-2013, Tilden (like every other middle school in Philadelphia) was only allocated $30.30 per student to buy books—and that amount, which was barely a quarter the price of one textbook, was supposed to cover every subject, not just one… At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the book budget was eliminated altogether.  Last June, the state-run School Reform Commission—which replaced Philadelphia’s school board in 2001—passed a ‘doomsday budget’ that fell $300 million short of the district’s operating costs for the 2014 fiscal year…  Philadelphia schools were allotted $0 per student for textbooks.  The 2015 budget likewise features no funding for books.”

Broussard suggests that federal and state public policy ought to be designed to take into account the realities for a place like Philadelphia.  “Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books.  At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job.  Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them.”

These days all the rhetoric about standards and curricula and tests merely assumes that all school districts can provide adequately for their teachers and their students to play by the rules of the game.  Broussard’s article ties together a mass of on-the-ground realities in Philadelphia and to one degree or another in many huge and poorly funded school districts.  Although we are told all the time that money really isn’t the variable that makes a significant difference, Broussard shows us many ways funding affects the management of a school district and the realities in the classrooms.