As Strike Averted, CTU Affirms Rights and Contributions of School Teachers

This blog will take a short fall break.  Look for a new post on Monday, October 24.

Late Monday night, after two years of negotiations, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached a tentative agreement to avert a strike only minutes before a midnight deadline.

Emma Brown and Kari Lydersen summarize the terms of the tentative agreement for the Washington Post: “It calls for a four-year contract good through June 2019, including salary increases based on teachers’ experience and education—which had been frozen during contract negotiations—and cost-of-living raises in the final two years. The agreement also includes a cap on privately run charter schools and would require the school system to provide a teaching assistant in early education classrooms—kindergarten through second grade—with 32 students or more.  And in a victory for the union, it requires the school system to continue its contribution to current teachers’ pensions, though new hires will lose that benefit… The total cost of the tentative agreement, and the school system’s plan  for footing the bill, was not immediately clear.”  Chicago’s WBEZ and a local publication, DNA Info, speculate that the cost of the agreement will be covered through special Tax Increment Financing district funds.

The Chicago Teachers Union emphasizes that improving support for children is part of the tentative contract—the above-mentioned addition of an assistant in primary grade classrooms of over 32 children, and an additional $10-$27 million to hire more clinicians, wrap-around supports and restorative justice coordinators.  Teachers also won promises for two additional 15 minute preparation times per week beginning in 2017 and a reduction in required testing and excess paperwork.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s 800 member House of Delegates must ratify the agreement before it can be considered approved, followed by a vote by all 28,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Last February the union’s membership rejected a tentative contract as it became clear that when its complicated terms were added together, some teachers’ salaries and benefits would have been reduced. The school district has been negotiating in the midst of a serious financial crisis, with the district teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from time to time and its bond rating falling to junk status.

At contract time, it is common to blame teachers and their unions, particularly in these days when business rhetoric and celebrity dominate the airwaves.  Children are too often an afterthought; the people who educate children and adolescents work invisibly in the schools few of us visit or think much about after our own children become adults. Teaching is public work of great consequence; nothing a teacher says or does can really be taken back. Every teacher’s biggest worry is passing judgment or saying something hurtful that a child will carry through life; yet that same teacher knows she or he must insist on every child’s best effort at every turn.  Teachers don’t have power lunches as part of their day; they are simply present—supporting and instructing and mentoring our society’s children day after day and year after year. Teaching also requires considerable preparation—filling every day with well orchestrated curriculum that builds coherently through the semester and school year.

In a column published a couple of years ago in the Washington Post, Why Educating the Educators Is Complex, Mike Rose, a teacher of teachers at UCLA, reminds us about what teachers do:

“Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics.  Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.  This takes us to the heart of what teaching is…. The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or a metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails?  This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics.  This involves hefty cognitive activity, … but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.

“Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s.  Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness.  Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers.  How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.”

I am very glad Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who controls the Chicago Public Schools, felt compelled to affirm these realities as the school district and the teachers union negotiated on Monday night. At a press conference two hours prior to the agreement, Emanuel said: “Tonight, we are committed to remaining at the negotiating table as long as it takes to reach an agreement—to give teachers raises, to secure their pensions, to invest in our schools.” I hope Emanuel’s ongoing management of the school district will embody these values.

In the meantime, all praise goes to Karen Lewis and her negotiating team for insisting with dignity—despite hard financial times in Chicago and the state of Illinois—that the rights and contributions of school teachers remain visible.

Homelessness in NYC Poses Problems for Families, Children, and Schools: We Blame the Schools

It is so easy to attack the public schools for failing to solve society’s intractable problems. For twenty years, that has been the strategy of test-and-punish school accountability. As an incentive to get everybody to work harder and smarter, punishments have been prescribed—fire the principal, fire the teachers, close the school, charterize the school.  Another assumption has been that governance changes—privatizing schools, opening charters, expanding school choice—would address the needs of children and families.  The ideology has said that lack of the freedom to choose is the problem.

Elizabeth Harris reports this week for the NY Times that a serious underlying problem for children in the New York City Schools is unrelated to teachers-not-trying.  And this problem cannot be addressed by a school choice system where high schools in NYC no longer have zoned attendance catchment areas and where vulnerable parents now have to play a complicated game to apply for places in the city’s middle and high schools. The problems are much deeper and among them has been rapidly growing homelessness. In a school district that serves over a million students, the enormous scale of family homelessness, the challenges for families in the homeless shelters, and the difficulty of coordinating services at school for homeless students have become overwhelming.

Harris covers a new report, written for the Independent Budget Office of New York City by Liza Pappas, Not Reaching the Door: Homeless Students Face Many Hurdles on the Way to School.  Pappas describes a rapidly growing problem: “There was a 25 percent increase in the number of temporarily housed youth attending schools run by the city’s education department from school year 2010-2011 through 2013-2014, when the number totaled roughly 83,000.”  “Thirty-four percent of city students in temporary housing identified as living in homeless shelters, while 58 percent said they are doubled up… An additional 8 percent awaited foster care placement or resided in other temporary housing situations (for example, hotels/motels, cars, parks,public spaces, abandoned property, and on the streets). In total, the number of students in temporary housing had increased by 25 percent since the 2010-2011 school year.”

According to the new report, school attendance problems are greatest for the children of families in the shelters not for the children in families doubled-up:  “In 2013-2014, the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) placed families with school-aged children in close to 200 shelters with different service models including Tier II shelters, cluster sites (previously referred to as scattered or scatter sites), converted hotels and motels, and housing for survivors of domestic violence. Tier II shelters provide housing and services to 10 or more families. Cluster sites provide shelter in privately owned residential buildings that can house both private rent-paying tenants and DHS clients.  Participating landlords are required only to provide shelter, not social services. Concerned about the poor conditions and lack of services, the city has pledged to end the use of cluster sites to shelter the homeless. In school year 2014-2015, the city also used commercial hotels that serve paying guests as well as those placed by city agencies. DHS has resumed placing families in commercial hotels as an emergency measure due to shortages elsewhere in the system.”

In her NY Times report, Harris explains how homelessness undermines school achievement: “The key issue is getting to school. Children living in shelters attend school significantly less than other students… Two-thirds of students living in shelters were either ‘chronically absent’ or ‘severely chronically absent’ in 2013-2014; children in the second group attended school less than 80 percent of the time… (D)uring the 2014-15 school year, only about half of homeless families were placed in the same borough as their youngest child’s school…. The figure represents a drop of 30 percentage points since 2011.  Increasingly, families are being moved further from the neighborhoods they know, and from family and friends who might be able to help them, while facing long commutes to get to school. Such moves leave parents with an excruciating choice: keep their children in a familiar school and commit untold hours spent commuting, or uproot the children further and enroll them in a school closer to the shelter. And because families are often required to move from one shelter to another—sometimes with as little as 24 hours notice… children can be bounced repeatedly from one new school to the next.”  Harris adds that in one recent school year, “almost 1,500 homeless children attended three or more schools, a phenomenon that is rarely observed among the permanently housed.”

Pappas’ report describes the steps that must be taken to ensure that parents are not required to keep their children out of school for several days while the family is processed at a downtown office for admission to a homeless shelter.  Families must also be taught their right, under the McKinney Vento law, to keep their children in their “school of origin.”  Harris adds that more staff are needed in the schools to coordinate services for homeless  students. In 2013-2014, “there were 117 family assistants in the Education Department’s Students in Temporary Housing program, whose duties include helping families navigate the enrollment process and providing transportation to school. Those 117 workers were responsible for almost 30,000 school-age children, or an average of 256 each.  The starting salary for a family assistant is $13.22 an hour.”  The need for more money is obvious.  Harris adds that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is increasing funding to help families in the shelters navigate the challenge of keeping their children in school: “The city is hiring attendance teachers, who keep track of absentees, to work in 23 shelters and sending social workers to 32 schools that serve large shelter populations.  It has set aside $10.3 million to fund initiatives like helping families in shelter navigate the middle-and high-school application process.”

Pappas’ longer report tracess the impact of homelessness on schools and classrooms: “Overwhelmingly educators interviewed for this study said that transience made it extremely difficult to support the educational success of students in temporary housing. Students arrived in the middle of the year, at the end of the year; sometimes they left and returned. Attendance teachers interviewed pointed to instances when students would ‘disappear’; it was not uncommon, as an attendance teacher at School 5 in Manhattan stated, to observe families who have been in and out of shelters and children who ‘have not returned to school in over a month.’  Often the school would have no way to locate the family—no working number and no new address—to check on the child’s well-being or to officially discharge the student from the school roster if the family had indeed moved.  None of the principals who participated in this study knew to contact the DOE staff member who could look up students’ information in the DHS data system CARES to see if perhaps the student and family were living in another shelter.”

Certainly better coordination between the Department of Homeless Services and the school district must occur.  However, the sheer size and complexity of the problem is overwhelming along with the expense of addressing it.  In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond names a very basic reality: “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate.  And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block. But poor families enjoy little of that because they are evicted at such high rates.” (p. 296)

In our nation’s largest school district, in New York City, homelessness undermines the stability of children, families, schools, and communities. The public schools alone, of course, are being blamed for low test scores.

More Evidence that State School Ratings Don’t Reflect School Quality

In Ohio, school districts are on the ballot with local property tax levies in this turbulent November election season. Here are the conditions under which our school districts—including the Cleveland school district this fall—find themselves on the ballot:

  • Ohio has a statewide tax rollback embedded in the state constitution.  When property values appreciate, the state effectively rolls back the local millage to keep the district’s revenue collection from any levy equal to the amount generated on the date the levy first passed. Even in these times when values are not appreciating significantly, our tax freeze ensures that school districts have to be on the ballot every few years just to stay even.
  • The state has also imposed a test-based accountability system that generates school district grades—the state report cards that copy Jeb Bush’s plan in Florida and that award letter grades to school districts based on standardized test scores.
  • These grades essentially force school superintendents to promise that test scores will rise—a sort of quid pro quo for citizens’ willingness to invest in the levies. While some voters will always support school taxes as a public obligation, the school districts that cannot quickly raise scores are perceived as reneging on these promises—encouraging some voters to vote against school levies as a punishment for superintendents, principals and teachers who can’t seem to raise the test scores.
  • There are also the state tax cuts—to business taxes and estate taxes and income taxes over the past decade—that increase every school district’s reliance on local property taxes.
  • And finally, in Cleveland, the public schools—individually graded by the state with the same letter grades—compete actively with charter schools that now receive some of the local levy dollars under a so-called “portfolio school reform” plan. The stakes are high because the closure of so-called “failing” schools hangs as a looming threat.

It is in this context that in Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reported extensively on Sean Reardon’s recent research that correlates standardized test scores with the aggregate family income of the students in a school district. (See Reardon’s papers here and here.)  O’Donnell summarizes Reardon’s findings: “Students in the affluent Aurora and Bay Village schools are typically two years ahead of students from across the country. Meanwhile, students in the Cleveland and East Cleveland schools are about two years behind.  Just don’t pat yourself on the back for high scores or hurl insults at the struggling urban districts. You’re all just fitting, almost exactly, a national pattern.” O’Donnell continues: “Just within Cuyahoga County, there is a 5.1-grade learning gap in between the lowest-scoring district for the years studied, Warrensville Heights (-2.4), and the highest, Solon (+2.7)… Across all of Ohio, the largest gap is more than six years of learning between the top-scoring Wyoming schools north of Cincinnati and the lowest-scoring Buckeye United schools 25 miles south of Columbus.” O’Donnell includes a searchable graphic by which you can find out how your own and other school districts score among the more than 11,000 school districts that are part of Reardon’s enormous data base.

Reardon is the Stanford University sociologist who has set out to study the impact of growing economic inequality among families on children’s school achievement, and O’Donnell quotes Reardon extensively: “Students in many of the most advantaged school districts have test scores that are more than four grade levels above those of students in the most disadvantaged districts… The socioeconomic context of a school district is a very powerful predictor of students’ academic performance.”  That is, of course, in the aggregate. We all know wealthy students who have fallen far behind in school and the press regularly shares the warm stories of homeless students who have triumphed and made their way to Harvard.

O’Donnell continues, quoting Reardon: “We have little evidence that we know how to provide adequate educational opportunities for children growing up in low-income communities… Average test scores in a district should not be interpreted as a measure of school quality… Test scores and academic performance more generally are shaped by many factors other than schools.  They are shaped by children’s families, their home environments, their neighborhood contexts, their child care and pre-school experiences, after school experiences, and by their schools… Average test scores are more appropriately interpreted as a measure of the educational opportunities available to children living within a district.”  In one of his academic papers, Reardon warns that the conclusions raise many further questions: “Our findings should not be taken as causal estimates; as we argue here, the forces producing racial/ethnic inequality in educational outcomes are complex, interactive, and self-reinforcing, meaning that correlational analyses may not be predictive of the effects of changing social or educational conditions.”

Reardon and colleagues authored a third paper this year that explores some of the ways rising economic inequality may be driving an increase in income segregation across school districts—a trend that school accountability plans with their ranking and rating of school districts may be exacerbating: “Income segregation between schools and school districts increased from 1990 to 2010… The increase between 1990 and 2010 was driven not by increasing segregation of the poorest families from all others but by the lower-middle class becoming more segregated from the upper-middle class and the affluent.  That said, between-district segregation of FLE (Free Lunch Eligible) and non-FLE students did increase from 1990-2010… One driver of the growth in income segregation between districts and schools is rising income inequality… Parents have become increasingly concerned about ensuring their children’s success in a more competitive labor market, and as district and school information has become more readily available, parents can more easily make fine-grained distinctions to identify their preferred schools.  Rising income inequality provides high-income families with the resources to realize this preference, resulting in increased sorting by income across school districts, schools, and neighborhoods.”

As Ohio grades its schools and school districts with “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” and “Fs,” it is pretty clear that the ratings create the distinctions—whether fine-grained or not—used by parents to find the highest rated place they can afford. Real estate websites like Zillow brand whole neighborhoods and communities with the state’s school district grades.  The school district rating systems are redlining the school districts that serve the poorest students and driving out-migration and exurban growth.  Reardon further describes the likely political implications—especially in a state like Ohio, that brags about “no unvoted taxes” and where all school districts must be on the ballot every few years—of such school district rating systems to undermine the very school districts that accountability-driven school “reform” promised to improve: “(H)igh levels of income segregation may affect political support for public education. High-income families generally have more political influence than low-income families, and high-income families in highly segregated metropolitan areas have little incentive to advocate for increases in metropolitan-or state-wide school funding if their own high-income district has substantial resources. Future research should directly test whether the growth in income segregation documented here accounts for the growing income achievement gap.”

FairTest Proposes One Possible Path Away from Test-and-Punish

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has released an important brief, Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind last December, opens the possibility of experimentation with some softening of test-and-punish.  There will be no quick turnaround, and it surely will not begin before a new President and new Secretary of Education take over in January. But as FairTest explains, under ESSA there is at least now a chance for states to begin experimenting with change.

FairTest shows how states can take advantage of an experiment—written into the Every Student Succeeds Act—to crawl out from under the avalanche of standardized testing into the sunlight of a program that is its exact opposite: schools’ evaluating students with portfolios of work created in their classrooms under the guidance of their teachers: “FairTest proposes a model system to maximize high-quality assessment within ESSA’s constraints… Unlike NCLB, which revolved around standardized test scores, the model begins with classroom-based evidence that emanates from ongoing student work. FairTest’s model is rooted in exemplary practice and a set of principles derived from decades of assessment reform efforts. The primary purpose of this innovative system is to support high-quality, individualized student learning.  It is guided by teachers but substantially student controlled, with multiple ways to demonstrate learning… Districts or consortia of schools or districts, have the flexibility to ensure the structure and nature of their assessment systems address their local needs and challenges. This could range from assessments rooted in inquiry- and project-based learning, with extensive student choice, to more traditional curriculum, instruction and tests.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act’s  “Innovative Assessment” pilot project allows for up to seven states to try out new testing models as a substitute for federally mandated annual standardized tests.  Now this is sort of tricky, because there are all sorts of requirements that seem daunting: “A full new system must include English language arts (ELA) and math assessments in at least grades 3-8 and once in high school, plus three grades of science…. A pilot can start with a limited number of districts but must include a plan to become statewide in five years, though extensions are allowed… During the pilot period, the new assessments must also be comparable with current state tests.  ESSA draft regulations list ways in which such comparability can be established.  These include administering the state exam to all students in the pilot; or only to students in one grade each in elementary, middle and high school; or both the state test and the new assessment to a demographically representative sample of students in the pilot… or some other DOE-approved method… a state creates.”

In FairTest’s proposal, what is essentially an assessment system based on individual students’ learning portfolios could be made comparable from school to school and district to district through several methods—all with strengths and drawbacks that FairTest analyzes. Classroom teachers would evaluate students’ work but there could be an independent moderator who would re-score each student’s work according to scoring guides or rubrics.  Or a state might use “anchor tasks and tests.”  “In this procedure, the same performance tasks are administered to students across participating districts.  While the new system is being built, all participating districts must administer the current state tests in at least some grades.”  Or states might institute validation studies, perhaps every five years, to compare results across districts according to a standards-based definition of proficiency.

FairTest notes that the requirement for “comparability” in accountability systems will by its very nature pose a threat to education driven to a greater extent by students’ interests: “Comparability has value, but the great value of assessment is to enrich student learning.  The dangers from comparability requirements could be lessened if districts are not forced to alter their local assessment scores to be comparable to state test results.  However, as long as current standardized exams are falsely presented as the ‘gold standard,’ the problem will remain.”

New Hampshire has been experimenting in a small number of school districts with such an alternative assessment plan that it launched under conditions it applied for under a No Child Left Behind waiver. New Hampshire’s PACE program: “was designed to unite rich learning assessed locally with federal accountability requirements. It includes the state ELA and math tests administered once each in elementary, middle and high school; Common Tasks administered in the non-tested grades 3-11, plus science in three grades; local tasks; and an ‘Achievement Level Determination’… Local systems focus on multiple assessment tasks made by district teachers plus items from… (a) bank (of educational tasks created by experienced teachers).  These are scored locally.  Teachers across districts re-score samples for training purposes.”  FairTest’s report explains New Hampshire’s program in detail along with its strengths and weaknesses and provides several additional examples of experiments in alternative assessment.

FairTest recognizes that our society will not immediately be able to reject test-and-punish and move to an ideal new system.  Advocates must be prepared to take the long view and also to realize that while we may in the short run be able to reduce standardized testing, it will take time to help our society imagine a system less reliant on the kind of quantifiable test score data our politicians have come to trust:  “If the next U.S. Secretary of Education understands the damage done by NCLB’s focus on testing and wants to repair it, states could have the flexibility to move in the best possible direction. It will be up to assessment reform activists to persuade the new president to appoint a secretary who understands what is at stake. At the same time, parents, teachers, administrators, students, school boards, and other reform advocates will have to pressure their states and districts to take advantage of their new opportunities.”

U.S. Dept. of Education’s Own Inspector Again Condemns DOE’s Oversight of Charter School Grants

You may not be aware that the U.S. Department of Education—under President Barack Obama’s appointees, Arne Duncan and John King—has been awarding billions of dollars to promote the growth of charter schools across the states. Even less reported has been the failure by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure good stewardship of federal funds through careful administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  Although the operation of the federal Charter Schools Program has been little-reported, there have been warnings. A 2012 report from the Department of Education’s internal Office of Inspector General  (1) exposed the Department’s failure to ensure careful oversight of federal funds by the state departments of education who received grants, and (2) confirmed the Department’s failure to regulate the charter school management organizations that have been charged with overseeing the operations of the schools  supposedly under their purview.

Another—September 2016—report from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has uncovered the very same problems. On Wednesday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, shared the new scathing, new indictment by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General of the Department’s own Charter Schools Program: “The Education Department has… poured in excess of $3 billion into the creation and operation of charter schools, but according to a new audit by the agency’s own inspector general’s office, it has failed in some cases to provide adequate oversight and as a result has put its own grants at risk.  The audit titled, Nationwide Assessment of Charter and Education Management Organizations, and conducted by the department’s inspector general… looked at the relationship that several dozen charter schools have had with their own charter management organizations (CMOs).  It found, among other things that there were ‘internal control weaknesses’ related to the schools’ relationships to their CMOs that were so severe that the department’s own program objectives were at ‘significant risk.'”

Strauss continues: “The newly released report comes just as the department announced $245 million in new grants to state educational agencies (state departments of education) and CMOs under its Charter Schools Program, which funds the creation and expansion of charters around the country.  The Charter Schools Program has invested more than $3 billion into these schools since 1995, helping more than 2,500 charter schools open… According to the audit… the department didn’t do enough to ensure that some of the charter schools it is funding have been able to reach the stated goals.”

At the end of Strauss’s column where it is posted, you can examine the new review by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Charter Schools Program. This year’s investigation by OIG focuses on charter schools that are part of large chains—some nonprofit and some for-profit—and examples of conflicts of interest and financial malpractice. These are the sort of widespread problems the press continues to expose in the complicated arrangements between charter school sponsoring organizations, charter school management organizations, and the particular schools operated by the larger charter chains. We continue to read news articles about problems across the states, but little has been done to prevent the abuses.

Here is how the U.S. Department of Education’s OIG explains this year’s report: “The objective of our audit was to assess the current and emerging risk that charter school relationships with charter management organizations (CMOs) and educational management organizations pose to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) program objectives and evaluate the effectiveness of… internal controls to mitigate the risk… We judgmentally selected 6 States and 33 charter schools with CMOs as case studies and reviewed the authorizers related to those charter schools.  We also reviewed internal controls and monitoring performed at the Department.”  Here are some of the OIG’s new findings:

  • “(W)e found that 22 of the 33 charter schools in our review had 36 examples of internal control weaknesses related to the charter schools’ relationships with their CMOs (concerning conflicts of interest, related-party transactions, and insufficient segregation of duties).”
  • (T)hese… internal control weaknesses represent the following significant risks to Department program objectives: (1) financial risk, which is the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse; (2) lack of accountability over Federal funds, which is the risk that, as a result of charter school boards ceding fiscal authority to CMOs, charter school stakeholders… may not have accountability over Federal funds sufficient to ensure compliance with Federal requirements; and (3) performance risk….”
  • “Further, the Department did not implement adequate monitoring procedures that would provide sufficient assurance that it could identify and mitigate the risks specific to charter school relationships with CMOs.”

This is Orwellian language about he federal government’s current incapacity to prevent situations in which charter management organizations create conflicts of interest by helping schools choose the school’s charter school board members when the board, once appointed, is supposed to choose the charter management organization the school itself will hire to run the school.  Or this Orwellian language may describe the charter management organizations that have vast, hidden real estate holdings including school buildings for which the CMOs then charge their own charter schools enormous rental fees.

The new September 2016 audit from the Department’s OIG merely repeats alarms that were raised about the operation of the federal Charter Schools Program in 2012 by the same Office of Inspector General. A year ago in June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—sent a letter to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan complaining that while the Department had granted $1.7 billion to states for expansion of charter schools since 2009, the Department of Education’s own Inspector General had been raising alarms about the Department’s own lack of any kind of quality control. The Alliance’s letter to Arne Duncan cited formal audits in which the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools cited questions raised in OIG’s 2012 audit about the weak regulatory capacity of the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and the incapacity of state departments of education which disburse the majority of the federal funds, as ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools accused the Department, according to its own 2012 OIG assessment, of failing to maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states,  lacking internal controls, and failing to train its employees in fiscal and program monitoring.  The Alliance noted that in 2012, none of the three states selected as samples for investigation by the Office of Inspector General—Arizona, California, and Florida—sufficiently monitored the charter schools funded with federal grants. Twenty-six charter schools in these three states were shown to have been closed after being awarded $7 million, and that even when the schools closed, nobody tracked what happened to assets that had been purchased with federal funds.

Finally in 2016, led by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Congress has begun to raise serious concerns about the Department of Education’s failure to monitor and oversee the huge federal grants for charter schools. A year ago, the Department made a $71 million grant to Ohio based on a grant application submitted by the Ohio Department of Education—a grant application whose bragging about Ohio’s oversight of charter schools has since been found to have been vastly overstated.  In June of this year, Senator Brown wrote to Secretary of Education John King demanding that more be done “to provide order to the state’s chaotic charter school sector… I ask that you examine the performance of Ohio charter schools who have received CSP (Charter Schools Program) grants to determine whether grant recipients are failing or closing at a higher rate than those in other states and how the academic performance of CSP grant recipients in Ohio compares to CSP grant recipients nationwide.”  Senator Brown asked the U.S. Department of Education to insist on the appointment of a special monitor to oversee Ohio’s $71 million grant.

Apparently Senator Brown’s pressure worked, because just weeks ago, when the U.S. Department of Education finally released the grant to Ohio, the money came with what the Department called “high risk” conditions—that Ohio must get prior approval from the federal Department of Education before transferring money to any charter school or charter management organization; that Ohio must improve its oversight of what are called “dropout recovery schools; that Ohio must provide quarterly reports on its progress in overseeing charter schools; that Ohio must strengthen regulation of charter school sponsors; that the Ohio Department of Education must hire an independent monitor of the administration of the $71 million grant; and that Ohio must create a Grant Implementation Advisory Committee.

The report Valerie Strauss brings to our attention this week—from the U.S. Department of Education’s own internal Inspector General—confirms that Ohio’s lax regulation of charter schools typifies a widespread problem underwritten by the federal government.  The U.S. Department of Education that has spent $3 billion since 1995 for charter school expansion across the states needs to clean up its oversight and strengthen regulations. It is to be hoped that Senator Sherrod Brown and Congress will keep up the pressure. (This blog has covered the need for better regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program here, here, and here.)

Public School Funding Matters, Even in this Political Season

If you really think about it, you might find it surprising that in Tuesday night’s Vice Presidential debate neither candidate for Vice President of the United States spent any time really talking about many of the issues that affect us all from day to day. Although they strongly disagree, both Tim Kaine, Virginia’s U.S. senator and former governor, and Mike Pence, Indiana’s current governor, care deeply about education, which is surely among the everyday matters of concern for America’s citizens. Mike Pence has been a strong promoter in his state of the preferred educational policies of the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, and Tim Kaine’s wife was, until the current campaign got underway, the state superintendent of education in Virginia.

However bizarre the campaign for President is this year, you will likely find it reassuring to be reminded that in some places the voters are paying attention to the condition of their public schools.  On Tuesday evening, just before the Vice Presidential debate, for example, the PBS NewsHour aired a story about forty teachers in Oklahoma who have chosen to run this fall for positions in the Oklahoma state legislature.  Reporter Lisa Stark explains: “Oklahoma schools have already lost a lot. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in per-pupil spending. And since 2008, the legislature has cut spending per student by 24 percent, the largest drop in the nation, leading to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms. More than 100 districts have approved four-day school weeks.”

Stark interviews Oklahoma’s teacher of the year who is running for state senate, along with other candidates—a recently retired 35-year  special education teacher, and a high school English teacher recently laid off in budget cuts. They are running for office based on their personal experience in the state’s under-funded schools.  Stark also speaks with David Boren, former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor and now president of the University of Oklahoma: “We’re headed for dead last in what we spend in the nation among all the states on the education of our students, and we’re losing our best and brightest teachers to all the states that surround us, because they pay so much more in their salaries, every single one of them.  So, we’re at a crossroads.” Boren supports a ballot measure to raise the sales tax by one percent for education and boost annual teacher salaries by $5,000: “It’s not a perfect solution, but we can’t sit here and wait. Are we going to wait until we have 100,000 students in classrooms with no teachers, qualified teachers?  Are we going to go to three-day school weeks?”

And on Tuesday, the day of the Vice Presidential debate, Chalkbeat NY reported: “More than 20 parents, students and educators are marching 150 miles from New York City to Albany to demand the state pay billions of dollars they say New York’s schools are owed under the terms of the 2006 settlement (in the school funding case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York). The suit argued that the state needed to increase education funding in needy school districts in order to provide all students with a sound basic education.  But after the recession hit, the will to funnel billions more into schools waned.” Supporters of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, the sponsor of the march to Albany, are hopeful that progress can be made to press New York’s legislature to fund what the court called “a sound, basic education.”

To mark the 10th anniversary of New York’s school funding decision, the Alliance for Quality Education also released a new report that declares: “2016 marks ten years since New York State was found in violation of its constitutional obligation to provide ‘a sound basic education’ to each student in the state…  Ten years later there are still schools across the state that offer limited access to art and music, or to sequences of Advanced Placement courses or other electives. Some schools have classes with 30 or even 40 students. Some schools do not have enough teachers or support staff.  Schools have guidance counselor to student ratios as high as 1 to 800 while the recommended ratio is 1 to 250.”  The state created the Foundation Aid formula as part of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement but it has never been fully funded.  The Alliance for Quality Education explains that in the current year’s budget, the state assembly included a multi-year plan fully to fund Foundation Aid, but the governor and senate balked. This week marchers from New York City to Albany continue to press the legislature to fulfill its commitment: “The Governor and the Senate Majority should join the Assembly and commit to fully funding CFE.  The 2017-18 state budget must provide $3.9 billion in Foundation Aid over two years.  Such commitment must include funding the Foundation Aid formula at $1.95 billion each year.  The Foundation Aid formula must also be revised to reflect current data and poverty level of each district.”

Then there is Kansas, where a task force appointed by Governor Sam Brownback has just proposed eliminating monthly reports that compare tax collections with projections.  The Associated Press‘s John Hanna explains: “Kansas has struggled to meet revenue targets and balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging as an economic stimulus.  Tax collections were nearly $45 million less than anticipated in September and fell short of expectations for 32 of the 45 months—71 percent of the time—since the first tax cuts took effect.  For at least several decades, monthly comparisons of tax collections against projections have indicated how the state’s budget is faring.  But the term-limited governor’s fiscal policies are a major issue in legislative races, and the reports have been a regular dose of bad news ahead of the November election.”

While Governor Brownback and his allies seem to want to hide the bad news, the voters in Kansas seem to be paying attention, partly due to a long slide in funding for public schools.  Hanna reports: “The governor is term-limited, but his political allies face a potential backlash.  Fourteen GOP conservatives lost their seats in the August primary, and Democrats hope to cut into Republican supermajorities in both chambers in the Nov. 8 election.  If they do, they and GOP moderates could form governing coalitions that attempt to roll back key Brownback tax policies.”

It is worth paying attention to these nuts-and-bolts political stories that are not making the headlines in this fraught political season.

Pending Teachers’ Strike in Chicago Reflects Long and Convoluted Funding Crisis

The Chicago Teachers Union has voted to strike next Tuesday, October 11. The union has not had a contract for over a year, and in threatening to strike, teachers are not only expressing dissatisfaction with the contract offered by Chicago Public Schools but also with years of state funding cuts and financial mismanagement that culminated over the summer in worries that the school district faced bankruptcy. Over 90 percent of teachers participated in the vote that authorized the strike, and of those, 95.6 percent voted to strike.

Here are some of the issues teachers are protesting in the contract itself.  First, during negotiations in years past, teachers agreed to give up salary increases when the District agreed to pay a higher percentage of their pension contributions. But in this contract, reports Sarah Karp for WBEZ News, the salary increases proposed by the district are contingent on teachers giving up what they negotiated in previous years and “paying 7 percent more of the employee contribution into the pension fund.”  Karp explains further: “That… offer would give teachers an 8.73 percent raise over four years, but teachers would pay 7 percent more into their pension fund and between 1.5 percent and 3 percent more for health insurance. Teachers would also get salary increases based on experience and education, called steps and lanes.  Considering the increase into the pension fund and payments to health insurance, steps and lanes would be the mechanism by which most teachers would see an increase in compensation.”  “One of the biggest sticking points for the union is that the offer Chicago Public Schools has made could result in some teachers getting less pay at the end of the contract compared to the beginning.”

But salary and benefits are only part of what teachers are protesting in Chicago. The Sun Times quotes a union spokesperson who explains that the vote “should come as no surprise to the Board, the mayor or parents because educators have been angry about the school-based cuts that have hurt special education students, reduced librarians, counselors, social workers and teachers’ aides, and eliminated thousands of teaching positions.” Significant staff cuts were made over the summer, and then just this week—mid-school-year in early October—the school district laid off another 249 staffers, based on the annual count of students in each building that takes place several weeks after the beginning of school each autumn. While district administrators say teachers can be rearranged across buildings to maintain reasonable class sizes and staffing arrangements, the union charges: “Today’s cuts are the latest round of attacks on children… School budgets are down more than 6 percent this year—a loss of $184 million—on top of years of sacrifice by our students, educators and schools….”

What gets lost in the recent coverage of the pending teachers’ strike is the long-running financial crisis of the Chicago Public Schools. The state went without a budget all of last year, due to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s inflexible commitment to austerity. And there is more:

  • Illinois ranks third from the bottom of the 50 states in the category of school funding fairness in the most recent annual rating of states’ school funding formulas by the Education Law Center. “School Funding Fairness” is defined by the Education Law Center: “This measures the distribution of funding across local districts within a state, relative to student poverty.  The measure shows whether a state provides more or less funding to schools based on their poverty concentration….”  Chicago has a high percentage of students living in deep and concentrated poverty, but the state funding formula does not sufficiently enable the district to support these students.
  • The school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. A year ago, Maureen Kelleher, writing for Catalyst Chicago, explained that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.”  And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.
  • The school district has encouraged the rapid expansion of charter schools since 2003 when then Superintendent Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 to introduce competition by rapidly expanding charter schools and closing so-called “failing” schools.  Since that time, the opening of new charters has contributed to the public school district’s declining enrollment.
  • Over this past summer Governor Bruce Rauner helped undermine investors’ confidence in the school district when he demanded to take over the district and declare it bankrupt.  Bond ratings declined to junk status, and even though bankruptcy was avoided, the interest the school district must pay on its bonds increased from 6 percent to 7.25 percent.

Sarah Karp reports for WBEZ that the district’s overall financial crisis is a major part of the contract negotiations going on through this last week before the pending strike. One issue seems to be Tax Increment Financing.  Tax Increment Financing deals in many cities allow the increased property tax revenue from a new development to be distributed specifically to fund public infrastructure improvements related to that new development. But apparently in Chicago, Tax Increment Finance funds are “special taxing districts that are used for economic development.”  During current contract negotiations, “The union has argued that some of that money could be used for teacher salaries and also to restore some positions closed due to budget cuts… This year, CPS is slated to get $34 million in TIF money—$50 million less than last year…. The timing of the strike might… be related to the TIF funds.”

While it is difficult to tease out all the threads of crisis braided together in the current contract negotiations, what is clear is that the teachers feel like pawns in a game they cannot possibly win.