Charter Schools: The Vision of their Founders vs. Today’s Reality

Charter school operators and advocates persistently brand charter schools as “public charter schools” even though charter schools are, by definition, always privately managed. However, operation is paid for with tax dollars appropriated by 44 of the state legislatures along with some federal investment and the diversion of school district dollars.

The people who proposed the idea of charter schools 30 years ago imagined how these schools would work and what would be the widespread result for children. What if we compare what the founders of charter schools imagined with today’s reality?

The Thomas Fordham Institute is a sponsor of charter schools and one of the nation’s prominent cheerleaders for theses institutions. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute and Bruno Manno, an emeritus member of Fordham’s board and an advisor to the Walton Foundation, recently celebrated the history of charter schools on their 30th anniversary.  Finn and Manno celebrate Ted Kolderie, who enthused about charter schools in a 1990 report for the Minnesota Center for Policy Studies. Describing Kolderie as “arguably the foremost theoretician of chartering,” Finn and Manno quote his report:

“(O)ur system of public education is a bad system. It is terribly inequitable. It does not meet the nation’s needs. It exploits teachers’ altruism. It hurts kids. Instead of blaming people…we need to fix the system [and] organize public education in America on a new basis. The proposal outlined in this report is designed to introduce the dynamics of choice, competition and innovation into America’s public school system. How can we use the powerful idea of choice to improve our schools while retaining the essential purposes of public education? This report proposes a simple yet radical answer: allowing enterprising people—including teachers and other educators—to… create new public schools, and ultimately a new system of public education, [by having] the states…simply withdraw the local districts’ exclusive franchise to own and operate public schools. [We need to undertake] divestiture, or allowing the districts to get out of running and operating public schools altogether.”

Now, 30 years later, Finn and Manno brag about what they believe are charter schools’ strengths:

  • “The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools.”
  • “Chartering has… pioneered new forms of governance for public education, including statewide Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools….”
  • Other charter-inspired governance models include ‘portfolio’ districts’… where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations…”

They conclude: “Through a combination of choice, competition, and innovation, chartering has bettered the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students, thereby reducing inequality, widening opportunity, strengthening parents, and enhancing civil society.  These are remarkable accomplishments for a thirty-year period, worth protecting and cultivating… When dealing with so many complex institutions across so many different jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation were sure to be profound.  And when what’s being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as American public schooling, these trials are even greater.”

Finn and Manno share a number of reforms they would like to see in charter schools: more attention to authorizing and quality control, need for more funding, and insufficient autonomy.  While they allege that the best charters improve student achievement, they don’t explore the problems with the academic studies they cite.  Neither do they discuss how few “best” charters there are in a sector where charter schools differ from each other and run the gamut of quality. They admit that, “charter promoters have sometimes been naive, occasionally self-interested, and often set in their ways.”

Now that charter schools have been around for 30 years, however, there is significant research demonstrating a whole range of problems on the ground, problems which Kolderie never imagined and which Finn and Manno neglect to mention.

First is the role of money and the absence of sufficient regulation in a sector which has been invaded by for-profit management and where 44 state legislatures, who are subject to lavish lobbying by charter sponsors and advocates, have failed to provide adequate oversight. After all, Kolderie defined  the very purpose of charter schools as escaping the constraints of public bureaucracy.  Jacobin Magazine published a recent interview with, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, which recently published a report, Chartered for Profit Jacobin‘s reporter asked Burris how it is that so many charter schools—which state laws require to be sponsored by and operated as nonprofit organizations—have become the source of massive profits their operators.  Here is her reply:

“The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services.  But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

It is worth pointing out the irony that we would all be shocked if we discovered the principal of our public high school or our school district’s superintendent profiting from our tax dollars. While such activity is illegal in public schools, money in the charter school sector is handled very differently. Burris explains: “Individuals can become very wealthy if they run charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Eva Moskowitz, who’s in charge of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City… pulls down a salary of nearly $1 million a year.  By comparison, the New York City public schools chancellor makes about $250,000 a year.” Burris continues: “A lot of this is possible simply because there’s so little oversight.  I was a public school teacher and then a high school principal.  Purchases had to go out to bid, and everything was very transparent.  I couldn’t contract with my Uncle Louie’s furniture company to buy desks. But you can in the charter school world… The charter school lobby says that this model is necessary for innovation. But what is it about the ability to commit fraud and avoid transparency that helps you to be more innovative?  The innovation that we’re seeing too often, sadly, is criminal manipulation.”

Second is the problem that charter schools are parasites on the public school districts where they are located. In some states, as was the case until recently in Ohio, school districts have to pay an additional charter school tuition fee right out of their own budget when children leave for a charter school.  But even in states where public school districts merely lose the state’s per-pupil basic aid when each child leaves, the school district suffers financially.  In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts…  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment.” At the same time, charter schools are less likely to enroll students with expensive special needs, which concentrates children who need expensive extra investment in their education in district public schools.

Third, neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.  For example, New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools has established a reputation for a regimented, no-excuses school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.  In March, Success Academies was fined $2.4 million by a federal district court for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.”

And especially in the South, charter schools have too often violated students’ rights by increasing racial segregation. A 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University reported:  “(W)e find that the state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time. In addition, during the period, individual charter schools have become increasingly racially imbalanced, in the sense that some are serving primarily minority students and others are serving primarily white students.”

Thirty years after the first charter school in Minnesota, there is finally some support in Congress to begin reining in some of the most outrageous for-profit charter chains. The House Budget Resolution would disqualify charter schools managed for-profit from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.

Chester Finn and Bruno Manno have been promoting the same lies for decades. Advocates need to continue to push hard to force the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and legislators across the states to see what’s wrong with the glossy ideology that has blinded so many.

Why We Need to Remember to Name the PUBLIC in Public Education

Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning, published in the autumn of 2020, is essential reading for all of us who care about public schooling. Beginning with the educational vision of the founders of our nation who understood public education as the center of the social contract, the book is a history of the institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to form citizens who will actively participate in our democratic experiment. Black’s book is hopeful about our history; he traces how the meaning of the guarantee of public education as a right for every child has become more inclusive in the over two hundred years since our nation’s founding—for the children of former slaves, for disabled children, for American Indians, and for immigrants. Those who conceptualized a system of public schools did not view education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual child. Why does it matter that our system of education in the United States is public—publicly owned, publicly governed and operated, publicly funded, and protected by law?

As Derek Black winds down his history of the impact of Reconstruction on the states’ constitutional promise of public schooling, the threats to equal access for all during Jim Crow, the long fight for civil rights protections against racial segregation, and decades of lawsuits brought to demand that state supreme courts protect adequate and equitable public school funding, he muses about today’s threats to our public system of schooling:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil right movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.  If it comes down to it, can public education persevere once again, or is it something different this time?” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

The threat today is widespread school privatization—the transformation of public schooling in many places into a school choice marketplace at public expense. As we watch this scenario play out, it is clear that meager state budgets cannot sustain three education sectors: a public sector, a charter school sector, and widespread public funding for vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Black writes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures… cross the Rubicon for our democracy.  As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement… (S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states.  Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

I thought about Black’s concerns on Friday as I read a briefing fact sheet released by the White House: How the Biden-Harris Administration Is Advancing Educational Equity.  This is, I think, intended as the framing document many have been waiting for.  President Biden and his Education Secretary Miguel Cardona filled the American Rescue COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March with funding to support our public schools, and the President’s proposed FY22 budget would, if successfully negotiated through Congress, significantly increase funding.  The briefing fact sheet frames all this as an equity agenda:

“For too many Americans—including students of color, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ students, students from low-income families, and other underserved students—the promise of a high-quality education has gone unfulfilled for generations… Dramatically unequal funding between school districts means some children learn in gleaming new classrooms, while students just down the road navigate unsafe and rundown facilities. Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, high-poverty school districts struggle to attract certified staff and experienced educators.  And students of color and children with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of school discipline that removes them from the classroom, with lasting consequences. With 53 percent of our public school students now students of color, addressing these disparities is critical for not only all our children, but for our nation’s collective health, happiness, and economic security.  Consistent with the President’s Executive Order, the Administration is committed to advancing educational equity for every child—so that schools and students not only recover from the pandemic, but Build Back Better.”

In Friday’s fact sheet, the Biden White House names many of its progressive and worthy proposals to fund education reform—providing high-quality universal early childhood education and pre-school, increasing access to affordable child care, addressing the current shortage of well-prepared teachers, upgrading school facilities long deemed deteriorating in too many communities, investing $20 billion in Title I schools and incentivizing states to improve school funding equity, radically expanding the number of Full Service Community Schools, increasing access to broadband in underserved communities, and increasing funding for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by $2.6 billion.

Of course, Congress will have to agree to fund this needed investment.  It is definitely not a sure thing, but Biden and Cardona’s proposal deserves credit for going to the heart of the gaping inequality across America’s public schools.  The document does speak directly to issues in America’s public schools, the institutions that continue to serve around 90 percent of our nation’s children and adolescents.

There is something not quite right, however, in the narrative frame of the document, which consistently addresses equity in “education,” but not equity in “public education.” In what I compressed into four single-spaced pages, I find the word “public” only a handful of times. Perhaps this is mere carelessness, but I don’t think so. The Biden Administration has chosen not to address what public school parents are watching all over the country as their public schools run short of money for the basics, and what we all watched during the recent state budget debates when legislatures slipped more and more public dollars to charter schools and vouchers.

The framing of this document is consistent with another of the administration’s recent choices. While, in its FY 22 budget resolution, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to ban funding from the federal Charter Schools Program for charter schools operated by the huge, for-profit Charter Management Organizations, the President’s FY 22 budget proposal is silent on this much needed reform at the same time the U.S. Senate is receiving massive pressure from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others in the well-funded charter school lobby.  (It is worth noting here that charter school supporters always do remember to frame their schools as “public” even though charter schools are always privately operated). President Biden and Secretary Cardona need to weigh in on behalf of the public schools against any form of for-private educational contracting.

By failing to confront the impact of ever expanding school privatization at public expense, the Biden White House and Department of Education have, perhaps understandably, chosen to avoid controversy. But by neglecting to name and confront the impact of the enormous problem of school privatization, the administration is tacitly supporting what is happening across the states.

Here is Derek Black’s response: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

Black continues: “But it is not just what today’s leaders have said and done. Also telling is what they haven’t said. Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they miss is that charters and vouchers… involve an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 233)

Tax Avoidance Lets the Wealthy Set the Policy Agenda

In June, ProPublica released the data: “In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes three years in a row. ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data… (which) provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg… Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.”

When these facts were published, and after Republicans in Congress balked at funding President Biden’s infrastructure plan with increased taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr seized the moment as an opportunity to explain how it has come to be that these people and many others pay so little to support the basics of our society: “The main federal tax is the individual income tax, which accounts for roughly half of all federal revenue and which tens of millions of middle-class people pay throughout the year as employers withhold taxes from their paychecks. To a great degree, however, the income tax is essentially voluntary for the nation’s richest people. Much of their income comes in the form of gains in the value of their stocks and other assets, and they can avoid taxes on those gains if they hold on to these assets rather than sell them. When high-income households do pay tax on their income from their assets—such as capital gains and dividends—they pay at tax rates that are far lower than the tax rates they would pay on wages and salaries. These tax breaks, which policymakers have expanded in recent years, help to widen the enormous gaps in income and wealth between the nation’s richest people and everyone else. The top 1 percent of households in terms of income receive the vast majority of capital gains and a large chunk of dividend income, and they are reaping most of the benefits of a new deduction, enacted in the 2017 tax cut law, for what’s known as ‘pass-through’ income, which the owners of partnerships and certain other businesses report on their individual tax returns.”

There are two primary consequences of the fact that wealthy Americans pay almost no taxes.

First: There is a shortage of public revenue to pay for the basics society desperately needs—infrastructure repair, public schools in poor communities, and adequate child care.

Today Republicans in Congress balk at paying for President Biden’s desperately needed national infrastructure plan to repair what everyone agrees are rapidly deteriorating bridges and roads and old water systems where hundred-year-old pipes break deep underground and where in too many places water is carried in lead pipes. The American Families Plan, which would help our society’s poorest children in myriad ways, is deemed unaffordable. And at the same time across the states, where Republican-dominated legislatures have adopted tax cuts, the shortage of federal funds has been magnified as old infrastructure and poorly funded schools proliferate.

In Ohio last month, for example, when the Ohio Legislature argued about the 5 percent income tax cut the Republican-dominated Ohio Senate wanted to include in the new state budget,  Policy Matters Ohio’s’ Wendy Patton demonstrated that only the wealthy would benefit: “Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.”  After a long debate and much pushback, the new Ohio budget includes only a 3 percent tax cut, but the primary beneficiaries will be the wealthy.

Tax cutting has become a trend in many more states than Ohio. In The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, education historian  Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire write: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker… took aim at education through Act 10… (which) made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

Second:  When they don’t pay taxes, the extremely wealthy can invest their money privately through philanthropy in ways that distort our institutions according to their own theories and whims. 

Charitable foundations no longer operate by responding when worthy organizations submit applications to fund needy projects. Instead staffs at large foundations influence policy according to their and their funders’ theories and priorities.  They pay for their own research studies to prove their theories, they buy media coverage, and, in education, they make grants to the school districts which agree to try out their experiments.

Last week, California teacher blogger Tom Ultican provided an update on what has happened to the late Eli Broad’s public school leadership program aimed to form school leaders through business principles instead of education theory. Here is a bit of background behind Ultican’s recent post. In December of 2019, a little more an a year before his death in April 2021, Eli Broad donated $100 million to Yale University’s School of Management. The gift came with a quid pro quo: Yale University’s School of Management now houses the Broad Superintendents’ Academy and Broad Residency in Urban Education. What this means is that mega philanthropist, Eli Broad, with a background as an accountant who bought a life insurance company which he turned into a retirement savings business, purchased a prestigious institutional home for a school superintendents’ training program he alone devised.  Eli Broad’s personal philosophy of education management now has the imprimatur of Yale University even though there is no academic, peer-reviewed research endorsing Eli Broad’s theories of education management.

Ultican reports that The Broad Center at Yale School of Management has just “enrolled its first cadre of 17 fellows into the ‘Fellowship for Public Education Leadership program.'”  Although many of the staff at The Broad Center have previously worked as public school leaders or staff from state departments of education, they are likely to have completed the program themselves as Broad Residents in years past. Some were leaders in privately managed Charter Management Organizations or state departments of education which created state takeover agencies to manage struggling public schools. Ultican concludes: “Significantly, the late Eli Broad chose a business institute instead of an education school to continue his training program. The Broad Center at Yale School of Management appears to be in complete fidelity with the late Eli Broad’s privatize the commons ideology.”

Also last week, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported on a new collaboration of some of America’s richest education philanthropists “aimed at dramatically improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.”  Certainly that is a worthy purpose, but the philanthropists who are leading this effort are not aiming to invest in reducing class size, hiring guidance counselors, creating school orchestras, or restoring the school libraries that have been cut in lean times: “The Advanced Education Research & Development Fund… is already funded to the eye-popping tune of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), and the Walton Family Foundation… AERDF (pronounced AIR-dif) says its focus will be on what it calls ‘inclusive R&D,’ or bringing together people with different expertise, including educators, to design and test practical ideas like improving assessments and making math classes more effective. Still, the ideas will have ‘moonshot ambitions,’ said the group’s CEO Stacey Childress…  The organization emerged from work that began in 2018, when CZI and Gates teamed up to invest in R&D. That resulted in a project known as EF+Math, which funds efforts to embed lessons in executive functioning—a set of cognitive skills related to self control and memory—into math classes. ‘These executive functioning skills allow you to focus on what’s important, ignore distractions, let you think flexibly to solve problems and keep track of ideas,’ said Melina Uncapher, the program’s director. ‘Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re strongly related to math skills’… The other project that AERDF announced Wednesday is called Assessment for Good, and will focus on creating better student tests that shift from focusing on students’ deficits to their strengths.”

Notice that the aim here is to change the focus of standardized testing, not to reduce our nation’s overreliance on standardized test scores that these same philanthropists have promoted for a quarter of a century. And it is important to remember that decades of sociological and educational research overwhelmingly blame poverty and growing economic inequality along with economic and racial segregation—not the lack of students’ executive functioning—for the struggles of groups of students whose test scores have lagged.

AERDF is merely a new way for mega-philanthropists to focus microscopically on technical research without addressing the rising inequality in which they are complicit.  If they paid taxes on their vast incomes, the states and the federal government would have more revenue to address the problems that simply stare us all in the face: class sizes of 40 students; shuttered school libraries; a shortage of guidance counselors; absence of school bands and orchestras; school newspapers that stopped publishing when there was no money to hire a journalism advisor; reliance on outdated computer technology; and urban schools that lack the academic enrichments suburban children take for granted—challenging literature, civics, advanced math, and lab science classes.

In Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas considers what it means when the wealthiest individuals cease to pay their fair share of taxes for the public good and instead attempt to shape society according to their personal priorities via philanthropy:

“What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.  We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves. Yes, government is dysfunctional at present.  But that is all the more reason to treat its repair as our foremost national priority.  Pursuing workarounds of our troubled democracy makes democracy even more troubled. We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

DACA Once Again Thrown Out by Federal Judge: Hundreds of Thousands of DREAMers Fear for Their Future

The need to protect DREAMers is an old and still urgent issue. DREAMers are adolescents and young adults who remain undocumented and were brought here as very young children by their non-citizen parents. They are members of every community; they attend our public schools; and in many cases, once they have grown up, they are teaching in our schools or working in our communities.  In most instances the United States has been home to these young people during almost their entire lives. English is likely to be their primary language, and they may not know anyone in their parents’ home country. But they remain undocumented and, these days, threatened with deportation if DACA, the program President Obama created to protect them, is eliminated.

These young people are called DREAMers because the protection they and their advocates have sought has been called the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act).  A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe protects their right to a public school education despite that they are not U.S. citizens, but until President Obama created DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by executive order, they were left vulnerable. DACA was a temporary program intended to at least protect these young people’s right to work, to apply for a driver’s license and to avoid deportation. Some states still deny DREAMers access to in-state tuition at public colleges or to publicly funded scholarships.

The NY TimesMiriam Jordan explains who has been eligible for DACA  protection: “To qualify for DACA, applicants must have entered the United States before age 16, lived in the country continuously since June 2007, finished high school or enlisted in the military, and have a clean criminal record.”  Approximately 700,000 young people are currently protected.

A week ago, a federal judge in Texas ruled against President Obama’s DACA program, letting current protection stand for young people already in enrolled in the program, but banning the Department of Homeland Security from awarding DACA protection for any new applicants, including a huge backlog of applications already filed that the Department of Homeland Security has allowed to build up during this COVID-19 year.

Jordan reports: “A federal judge in Texas on Friday ruled unlawful a program that has shielded hundreds of thousands of undocumented young adults from deportation, throwing into question yet again the fate of immigrants known as DREAMers. The judge, Andrew S. Hanen of the United States District Court in Houston, said President Barack Obama exceeded his authority when he created the program… by executive action in 2012.  But the judge wrote that the current program recipients would not be immediately affected, and that the federal government should not ‘take any immigration, deportation or criminal action’ against them that it ‘would not otherwise take.’  The Department of Homeland Security may continue to accept new applications but is temporarily prohibited from approving them…”

For NPR, Rachel Treisman reports that in 2018, another lawsuit threatened the DACA program; the same judge, Andrew S. Hanen ruled against the program; and, in 2020, the program was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Now, “Some two years later, following the Supreme Court ruling and a series of motions and arguments in the Texas case, Hanen directed the involved parties to bring their claims before him again.”

CNN‘s Elie Honig explains the difference between the 2018 and the current case: “Just last year, DACA survived an existential legal challenge when the Supreme Court, by a five to four majority, rejected the Trump administration’s effort to repeal the Obama-era executive action that created the program. The Court ruled that while one president generally has broad authority to modify or repeal the executive action of a prior president, such action still must comply with certain administrative procedures. The Court found the Trump administration failed to follow these guidelines because it never offered a ‘reasoned explanation for its action’… (T)he… new case involves the underlying constitutionality of DACA itself. Judge Hanen ruled that DACA is unconstitutional because it was created by executive action rather than legislation.”

In the current case, the NY Times‘ Jordan reports, “Texas led the effort to terminate the program, and was joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia.  Officials in those states had argued that the program was improperly adopted and left them with the burden of paying for education, health care and other benefits for immigrants who remained in the country under DACA’s protections.”

Judge Hanen’s decision last week will likely be appealed. Treisman reports for NPR, “One day after a federal district judge in Texas ruled against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Biden said the Department of Justice intends to appeal the decision.”

The case could be overturned by a higher court on appeal or could become irrelevant if Congress were to agree on legislation to protect the rights of DREAMers. The National Immigration Law Center responded to last week’s ruling by federal Judge Hanen by pointing out that, “DACA is a hugely successful and transformative policy with overwhelming public support.” And despite dysfunction in a polarized Congress, it is possible that some agreement can be reached on DACA: “The House of Representatives already passed the bipartisan Dream and Promise Act in March, and this week Senate leadership included a pathway to citizenship as part of its budget resolution.”

The History of Public Education Demonstrates the Importance of Understanding the Implications of Racism

Conservative legislatures and state boards of education across the states are trying to prohibit what they call the teaching of “critical race theory,” which these far-right ideologues are redefining as any ideas that might make white Americans uncomfortable.  At the same time, on Monday, the NY Times featured an article about a tragic violation of our nation’s declared values of equality and justice for all—the century long mandate that American Indian children be enrolled in U.S. government-run boarding schools. Children were taken forcibly from their families and communities and sent, often far away, to boarding schools designed to force them to assimilate into the American dominant culture.

In a stunning history, Education for Extinction, David Wallace Adams describes the establishment in the 1870s of mandatory boarding schools for American Indian children and the philosophy of education that defined their purpose: “The word was civilization. European and American societies were civilized; Indians on the other hand, were savages… Indians must be taught the knowledge, values, mores, and habits of Christian civilization… The first priority was to provide the Indian child with the rudiments of an academic education….  Second, Indians needed to be individualized… In the philanthropic mind Indians were savages mainly because tribal life placed a higher value on the tribal community than individual interests… Education should facilitate individualization in two ways. First, it should teach young Indians how to work… But teaching Indians how to work was not enough. In the end, they must be inculcated with the values and beliefs of possessive individualism. They must come to respect the importance of private property… and they must come to realize that the accumulation of personal wealth is a moral obligation… The third aim of Indian education was Christianization.” (Education for Extinction, pp. 12-23)

The Boarding Schools’ purpose was forcing assimilation. Students were punished for using their primary languages and forced to speak English. They were given “American” names. This week’s NY Times story describes Dzabahe, a young Navajo girl renamed “Bessie Smith” by her boarding school: “The last day Dzabahe remembers praying in the way of her ancestors was on the morning in the 1950s when she was taken to the boarding school… Within hours of arriving at the school, she was told not to speak her own Navajo language. The leather skirt her mother had sewn for her and the beaded moccasins were taken away and bundled in plastic, like garbage. She was given a dress to wear and her long hair was cut—something that is taboo in Navajo culture.  Before she was sent to the dormitory, one more thing was taken: her name.”

The boarding schools for American Indian children represent one example of the ways the United States contradicted its founding promise that all are created equal and all are worthy of liberty and justice  In his profound book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, James D. Anderson begins by acknowledging the blindness, bias, and misunderstandings that have defined the project of expanding the meaning of equal education for our nation’s children: “The history of American education abounds with themes that represent the inextricable ties between citizenship in a democratic society and popular education. It is crucial for an understanding of American educational history, however, to recognize that within American democracy there have been classes of oppressed people and that there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression. Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education. These opposing traditions were not, as some would explain, the difference between the mainstream of American education and some aberrations or isolated alternatives. Rather, both were fundamental American conceptions of society and progress, occupied the same time and space, were fostered by the same governments, and usually were embraced by the same leaders.”(The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, p. 1)

American Indian boarding schools are now a thing of the past, but today we have a lot of work to do before we can move forward to address injustices.  We must find a way to understand the truth of our history in spite of today’s ideologues who insist that what Anderson calls “the politics of oppression” never existed and certainly does not operate today. In a powerful new book, Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a ‘No-Excuses’ Charter School, Vanderbilt University ethnologist Joannne Golann dissects the biases she uncovered in her 18 month study of the culture of one of today’s no-excuses charter schools, which she identifies with a pseudonym, “Dream Academy.”  Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their mostly African American students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children. “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14)

Golann continues: “Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40) “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earning… A sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset…  Schools… cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school.” (p. 46)

In a profound 1998 book, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, Walter Feinberg, professor emeritus of educational philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, considers the urgent importance of a critical approach to the teaching of the nation’s history: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

In a recent letter, 135 academic and professional organizations protest the far right attacks on public schools’ teaching honestly about the racism in American history.  They conclude: “Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

U.S. Senate Should Eliminate Federal Charter Schools Program in FY 22 Budget Resolution

Both chambers of Congress have been drafting their budget resolutions. Once they accomplish this work, Congress and the President, who presented his budget proposal in April, will negotiate federal spending priorities and pass a final federal budget. This process is supposed to be complete by September 30, because October 1 begins Fiscal Year 2022.

The President’s budget proposal has excited public education supporters by radically increasing funding for Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million. The President’s proposal also doubles Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and increases funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. When the House of Representatives passed its budget resolution on July 5, members of the House pleased parents, public school educators and community advocates by including all three of these priorities and generously funding public schools.

The House budget resolution goes one step farther, however, by cutting $40 million from the $440 million federal Charter Schools Programs.  Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “Antipathy to the program has grown on Capitol Hill among Democrats in recent years, although the charter program still draws on bipartisan support.” Ujifusa also points to House support for a significant reform to this program: “The bill would prohibit federal money ‘from being awarded to charter schools run by for-profit entities.’ Charter schools run by such organizations have created significant controversy in the education community.”

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are a form of private contracting, but across the 45 states which have authorized charter schools, the state laws that created these schools are different. Some states let school districts themselves authorize charter schools; other states override local authorization through state authority or permit other outside authorizers.  And the amount of and quality of oversight varies. The original goal was to stimulate innovation by reducing what charter proponents alleged was the bureaucratic regulatory straitjacket that, they claimed, constrains traditional public schools.  Charter schools originated in the early 1990s, and now, nearly three decades later as the charter school sector has matured, we discover what might have been predicted in an education sector paid for with public tax dollars but at the same time operated privately with little oversight.

What is the federal Charter Schools Program?  

A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the CSP has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 45 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country.

Four Reasons Why the U.S. Senate Should Go Farther than the House and Eliminate the Charter Schools Program Altogether

While it is certainly a great idea reduce this year’s appropriation for the federal Charter Schools Program and to prohibit federal tax dollars from flowing into the coffers of those who are reaping huge profits by operating chains of charter schools, I don’t think the House has gone far enough.  The Senate is still drafting its budget resolution. I hope Senators will eliminate this program.

First, over the years we have learned about how in many places charter schools operate as parasites—sucking money out of public school budgets.

In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Further, Rutgers University’s Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin demonstrate that, “New Jersey charter schools enroll a fundamentally different student population than the districts where their students reside. New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. Furthermore, the special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have lesscostly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools.”  School districts must absorb the additional costs of educating a high percentage of each district’s students with special needs.

Second, the federal government, which awards Charter Schools Program grants, and the 45 states, which authorize charter schools under state law, fail to provide adequate oversight of charter schools.

In 2019, the Network for Public Education released Asleep at the Wheel, a detailed report examining the operation of the federal Charter Schools Program from its launch in 1994 until 2015: “Hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars have been awarded to charter schools that never opened or opened and then shut down… The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented… The CSP’s review process to award grants does not allow the verification of applicants’ claims… Grants have been awarded to charter schools that establish barriers to enrollment, discouraging or denying access to certain students… The (Education) Department does not conduct sufficient oversight of grants to State Entities or State Education Agencies, despite repeated indications that the states are failing to monitor outcomes or offer full transparency on their subgrants… The CSP’s grants to charter management organizations are beset with problems including conflicts of interest and profiteering.”

The Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has also conducted a series of scathing reports on lack of oversight in the federal Charter Schools Program.  For example, in 2018, the OIG investigated the quality of the Department’s oversight when charter schools shut down.  The Department of Education did not track whether the state departments of education properly oversaw the disposal of a school’s assets when it shut down to protect the tax dollars that had been invested. The OIG also discovered that, “In three selected states, the State Education Agency and/or authorizer required charter school officials to notify parents or legal guardians of a charter school’s impending closure… However, we found that for 23 of the 89 closed charter schools in our sample, school officials did not notify parents or legal guardians of displaced students of the charter schools’ impending closure and did not provide information regarding alternative public school placements and appropriate assistance with enrollment.”

Third, fraud and corruption run rampant in this publicly funded but privately operated education sector whose oversight depends on the actions of 45 different state legislatures, whose members are the targets of well-paid lobbyists hired by charter school advocates and school operators.  One possible source of leverage is reform in the federal Charter Schools Program.

Fraud, corruption and outright theft is common.  In April of this year, CNBC reported that Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep charter schools in Harlem and a former official in the Obama administration, was arrested for stealing $218,005.00 from Democracy Prep Charter Schools “to maintain a bank account minimum that gave him a more favorable interest rate for a mortgage on his… Manhattan residence.”  The Network for Public Education has set up a web page to track the hundreds of scandals reported year after year across the United States in local newspapers.

A prime example of the problem is the Charter School Program grants for the IDEA charter chain in Texas and Louisiana.  In 2019, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported that IDEA charter schools had received one of the largest federal Charter Schools Program grants that year: “IDEA, a Texas-based charter network, won an expected $116 million over five years. The network’s application says it will use the money to add grades at 56 schools and create 38 new schools across Texas; in New Orleans and East Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and in Tampa Bay, Florida… (IDEA received) what appears to the largest award ever directly given to a charter network through the federal program. It’s the fifth time IDEA has won a Charter Schools Program grant, including a 2017 award of $67 million over five years.  The network was hatched in 2000 in Donna, Texas, along the Mexico border. It currently runs 79 schools serving 45,000 students. The network has dramatic growth goals, aiming to reach 100,000 students by 2022 and 250,000 students in a decade.”  Then in 2020, Barnum reported that IDEA charter schools won another five-year Charter Schools Program grant, this time of $72 million.  But in April of 2020 we also learned something else about the management of IDEA charter schools: CEO Tom Torkleson was forced to resign when it was shown he had bought a private jet with the school’s dollars for the use of the school’s executives and their families and that he used $400,000 of the school’s revenue every year on luxury sky boxes for sporting events for the schools’ employees.  Now the two women who replaced Torkelson as CEO and Chief Operating Officer have been fired for misusing the huge charter company’s revenue.

Fourth: Neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.

In the latest example, described by Network for Public Education’s Executive Director Carol Burris, a private North Carolina white-flight academy found a way to transform itself into a publicly funded charter school without desegregating.  Burris explains that racial segregation in charter schools is a long-running problem in North Carolina: “How North Carolina’s charter schools are used to resist integration is well documented, as more predominantly White charter schools pop up in integrated or majority-minority school districts.  For example, a 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University—found the state’s charter schools ‘increasingly serving the interests of relatively able White students in racially imbalanced schools’ with the number of students in predominantly White charter schools nearly doubling as the number of minority students concentrated in charters that were more than 90 percent minority.”

Recently Hobgood Academy, an all white private school converted to a charter.  Burris explains that while in the past “segregation came with a cost—$5000 a year in tuition,” when the school decided to become a charter school, advocates posted this disclaimer: “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age sex, race, creed.”

Despite its segregation, however, Burris reports that Hopgood Academy received money from the federal Charter Schools Program: “Thirty of the 42 charter schools that to date have received CSP grants via the North Carolina Department of Education have reported demographic information.  Of those schools, more than one-third (11) have significant overrepresentation of White students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located. In addition to Hobgood… (there) are four examples of other schools that got the money.”

Burris concludes: “It is easy to blame Betsy DeVos for giving a $26.6 million grant to a state whose charter sector has come under repeated fire for increasing segregation in an already segregated school system.  Now the Biden administration and Secretary Miguel Cardona own the grant.  Indeed, they own the whole flawed Charter Schools Program.”

Congress also owns this program and it is time for the Biden administration and Congress to make the federal Charter Schools Program a relic of the past.

Philanthropic Dollars Are Funding the Effort to Distract Legislatures and School Boards with a Debate about Critical Race Theory

The concept of Critical Race Theory—that racism throughout U.S. history has been structural and institutional and not merely a matter of personal prejudice—is theoretical and has been taught in colleges, graduate schools and law schools but rarely in the public schools. (See here and here.) More basic educational lessons in K-12 public schools to help students and educators learn about racism and be more sensitive to the needs and history of people from the different cultures who make up our society are neither frightening nor threatening.

The recent brouhaha, which alleges something dangerous about Critical Race Theory and racial sensitivity training, would appear just to have emerged on Fox News and social media. But if that’s true, how is it that more than half the state legislatures are debating legislation or have passed laws to prohibit discussions in public school social studies classes of sensitive subjects that might make students feel uncomfortable or guilty?  And why, last week, did 135 national academic and professional organizations feel compelled to write a letter declaring “our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.”?

Earlier this week, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria of Popular Information reported: “This didn’t happen on its own. Rather, there is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) into our politics. In 2020, most people had never heard of CRT.  In 2021, a chorus of voices on the right insists it is an existential threat to the country. A Popular Information investigation reveals that many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.  The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile.”

Legum and Zekeria explain: “Between 2017 and 2019, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation has granted at least $12.75 million to organizations that publicly attack Critical Race Theory… The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has recently been at the forefront of the crusade against CRT.  It is also the top recipient of cash from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.” The Manhattan Institute received $4.32 million from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation between 2017-2019.  We learn that Christopher Rufo, who appeared seemingly from nowhere on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and openly claimed he has been working to distort and make toxic an academic theory about structural and institutional racism by conflating any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket called critical race theory,” isn’t merely a documentary film maker, as has been reported.  He is a well-paid fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

From Legum and Zekeria we learn: “The right-wing Heritage Foundation, which previously employed Rufo, also receives substantial support from Thomas W. Smith Foundation… In June 2021, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation told Politico that fighting ‘critical race theory’ is one of the top two issues the group is working on alongside efforts to tighten voting laws.'”  Between 2017 and 2019, the Heritage Foundation received $525,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

The list of organizations receiving funding from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation is lengthy: the American Enterprise Institute, the Alexander Hamilton Institute, the American Ideas Institute, the Center for American Greatness, the Claremont Institute, the Daily Caller Foundation, The Federalist, Heterodox Academy, the Independent Women’s Forum, Judicial Watch, Turning Point, The National Review, PragerU, The Real Clear Foundation, The Texas Public Policy Foundation, The American Spectator, the Federalist Society, and Young America’s Foundation.

Two other significant recipients must be named because of their reach into public policy. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafts model laws to be copied and adapted into legislation by any state legislature. And the State Policy Network (SPN) works with ALEC; its mission is to work actively through its network of politically conservative state policy think tanks to promote coordinated legislation across the 50 state legislatures. Legum and Zekeria report: “The American Legislative Exchange Council… has been hosting webinars to help lawmakers draft legislation banning Critical Race Theory (and) has received at least $425,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation since 2017.  In December 2020, ALEC hosted a workshop in partnership with the Heritage Foundation on ‘Reclaiming Education and the American Dream… Against Critical Race Theory’s Onslaught.'” With so many of nation’s state legislatures and state boards of education considering similar bills and resolutions to ban public school discussion of so-called “threatening” topics, ALEC’s and SPN’s fingerprints are almost inevitable.

Wealthy philanthropists now use their so-called charitable foundations to shape public policy. Most of us are aware that today, philanthropy is not merely investing in charitable grants to needy causes in response to applicants’ requests for support. The seemingly sudden emergence of the idea that something called “Critical Race Theory” has become a crisis in our public schools is merely the latest example of philanthropic dollars spreading ideology.

As a response, we need to consider the words of the leaders of 135 academic and professional organizations who declared last week: “(T)he ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

Tomorrow, Families Will Begin Receiving Expanded Child Tax Credit Payments

In too many places, the recently passed state budget includes public school funding allocations along with more money pulled out to support private school tuition vouchers and privately operated charter schools. And despite that American Rescue Plan rules encourage states not to use federal dollars to supplant what they already spend on educating children in public schools, right now it is impossible for even the best informed citizens to sort out whether federal dollars—when sifted through the politics of state legislatures—will bring public schools more or less funding or how the funds will be spent.  It is also too early too know whether public school funding increases in the federal budget Biden has submitted to Congress will be approved and actually reach the school districts serving concentrations of America’s poorest children as the President intends.

But one piece of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March, is absolutely certain to help America’s children. Tomorrow, July 15, 2021, families will begin receiving additional support under a provision that expands the Child Tax Credit and makes it fully refundable. The Child Tax Credit is not a new program. It has worked by reducing parents’ federal income taxes and leaving more earned income to be spent on the needs of the family.  But if a parent’s income is too low, that parent has not benefited from the full amount of the credit as higher earning parents do. The American Rescue Plan makes the Child Tax Credit fully available to all parents—“fully refundable” in the jargon of Congress.

In the American Rescue Plan, Congress also expanded the amount of the Child Tax Credit from $2,000-per-child last year to $3,600 for children under 5 and $3,000 for children 6-17 years of age.

The NT Times’ Alisha Haridasani Gupta explains: “On July 15… (American parents) will start receiving the first in a series of payments to help them mitigate the costs of raising children. The so-called child tax credits were expanded under President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March, and will, for the first time, be distributed as monthly checks by the Internal Revenue Service….  Typically, the child tax credits are distributed annually, at the end of a financial year, either as a deduction to how much a family owes in taxes or, in some cases, as a lump sum check. Critically, those were only available to households with earned incomes. ‘There’s always been a conditionality built in—to get these tax refunds, you have to be working,’ said Hilary Hoynes, an professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley…. In a significant reimagining of the tax credit, the (Biden) administration expanded the size of the payments and extended them to include parents with little or no earnings, a move that researchers at Columbia University estimate would help cut child poverty in half. By the end of the year, the monthly checks would total 50 percent of the annual tax credit a family would normally get, and the rest would then be paid when families file their taxes.”

For the Ohio Capital Journal, Laura Olson adds that the new Child Tax Credit will help families in poverty and phase out for wealthy families who don’t need government assistance: “Families can receive the full credit if their income is less than $75,000 for households with a single filer, $112,500 for head-of-household filers, and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.  The increased credit phases out above those amounts, with those making more than $144,500 as a single filer and $182,000 as a married filer eligible for the previous $2,000 per child, according to the Congressional Research Service.”

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Moriah Balingit profiled the families of several California migrant farm laborers to show how the expanded Child Tax Credit will support their children’s engagement at school: “The nation’s education system has long fallen far short of its aspiration to be the ‘great equalizer,’ where any child, rich or poor, could have an equal shot at success. Instead, research has shown that household income is one of the strongest factors shaping a child’s academic path. The pandemic has made this difficult to ignore, with schools grappling with students who did not have food, Internet, or a quiet place to learn at home… Children from impoverished households are already behind their more affluent classmates by the time they enter kindergarten, and the disparities persist through school. Students living in poverty are twice as likely to repeat a grade and 10 times as likely to drop out of high school… Household income is indelibly imprinted on test scores… All of this, too, is compounded by the fact schools in poor communities are often underfunded.”

For the child and family advocacy organization, The Center for Law and Public Policy, Ashley Burnside explains why tomorrow’s launch of the expanded Child Tax Credit tomorrow is extremely significant: “Lawmakers have temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit (CTC) available to families with children in 2021. This policy is anticipated to reduce child poverty by nearly half—and to have even greater benefits for Black children, Latinx children and Indigenous children who were disproportionately likely to be denied the full value of the federal credit under prior law because… (their families) earned too little. This will make a huge difference in helping parents with the costs of caregiving and in promoting positive childhood development… These expansions to the CTC are only for 2021.  We urge lawmakers to make these expansions to the CTC permanent, or to extend them as President Biden has proposed in the American Families Plan. We should invest in children and families beyond this year.  Extending the program can also ensure that we permanently reduce poverty.”

President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan, if passed by Congress, would extend the Child Tax Credit provisions in the American Rescue Plan through 2025. There is also support among Democrats in Congress to make the President’s reforms permanent.  Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Michael Bennet (D-CO)  have been pushing a bill including the very same provisions for increasing the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable.  And in February, at the beginning of the current Congressional session, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA) reintroduced a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While Statehouses Try to Legislate Against Teaching about Racism, Educators and Historians Fight to Protect Students from Censorship

Right now I am in the middle of reading and enjoying Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Night Watchman. What makes this book so fascinating for me is that it is about the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, people who are related to the Chippewa and Cree people who live on the Rocky Boys Indian Reservation just outside the Montana town where I grew up.

Erdrich’s novel explores the American Indian cultures along the Canadian border and the injustices of what has been called “the termination and relocation era” in the mid-twentieth century. In 1953, Congress considered a joint resolution to terminate the historic treaties negotiated by the federal government with the indigenous people across the nation. Politically, Congress promoted the termination resolution as though it would be a ticket to freedom for the residents of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation and other native people, but the goal instead was to force them to disperse, relocate and assimilate. Erdrich depicts the grassroots battle mounted—successfully—by tribal leaders to protect their people’s rights, their culture, and the tribal property. In her book, Erdrich also examines the exploitation of Chippewa women who had relocated from the reservation to the Twin Cities without the protection of their traditional community.

Reading this book and exploring the truth of the injustices thrust on American Indian communities in the mid-twentieth century is not a shock to me because I have been aware of some of this history for a long time. A good friend from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota had already taught me about the construction of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, a dam that flooded many of the native communities and, in 1953 and 1954, displaced the low-lying towns in Fort Berthold—forcing them to relocate to higher ground.

Like a lot of students who went through high school in the 1960s in northern Montana, and I’m sure, North Dakota and Minnesota, I didn’t learn much of this history at school. I am, however, fascinated to read about it as an adult. The far-right politicians and promoters of laws to prevent the teaching of such history at school now allege that as a white teenager, I would have felt guilty or demeaned—with my self esteem damaged—if I had been encouraged to learn this history at school. But I don’t believe it. Erdrich’s book interests me particularly because the novel explains so much about what I observed and couldn’t possibly understand as I was growing up.

When teachers help students honestly explore the injustices in American history, far-right hate-mongers accuse teachers of teaching something they call “critical race theory.”  Despite the need for schools honestly to teach history, today far-right state legislators are introducing laws to ban such teaching as unpatriotic and threatening to the self esteem of young people who are part of the dominant culture. Parents are mounting campaigns to get teachers fired if they openly discuss “threatening” topics like racial injustice with their students.

Although critical race theory is an academic concept developed in colleges of law to uncover, name, and deconstruct structural and institutional racism, far right ideologues have intentionally distorted the meaning. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey report that, for example, Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist wrote on Twitter that his goal—talking with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, for example—has been to conflate any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket” called critical race theory.

Last week strong pushback emerged to defend teachers’ right to explore and honestly discuss our nation’s history with our children in public schools. For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson reports: “Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned in a speech Tuesday that conservative lawmakers, pundits and news sites are waging a ‘culture campaign’ against critical race theory.  The theory is a decades-old academic framework that asserts racism is woven into the history and thus the present of the nation, helping shape how institutions and systems function…. Weingarten said that critical race theory is not taught in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. The theory is taught only in law school and in college…. ‘But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as critical race theory to try to make it toxic… They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.’… Weingarten said that the American Federation of Teachers, which has about 1.7 million members, has ‘a legal-defense fund’ ready to go.'”

Then on Friday, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a  Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History to confront a right-wing conservative attack on the accurate teaching of American history: “We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states, but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed ‘divisive concepts.’ These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, ‘that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort… guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.’ These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.”

The statement continues: ” First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.  Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

“Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements… Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”

This blog previously explored the attack on teaching about systemic racism here.

In “Scripting the Moves,” Joanne Golann Exposes the Demeaning Hidden Curriculum in a No-Excuses Charter School

Joanne W. Golann’s new book is all about schools that insist their teachers follow the guidance of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion instead of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but whose principals and teachers have convinced themselves they are liberating students from oppression.

Lured by the promise that their middle school will put them on the path to college, many of the students in Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School quickly become angry and disgruntled as teachers assign them demerits for failing to sit at attention or whispering or speaking as they walk in straight lines marked by squares on the hallway floors. At Dream Academy, teachers are driven obsessively to “sweat the small stuff.” School leaders warn teachers that the whole system might collapse if anyone loses control.

Golann explains that, Dream Academy, the pseudonymous name of the school where she conducted her ethnographic study, typifies to one degree or another no-excuses charter schools managed by many of the huge charter management organizations, beginning with KIPP, but also including Achievement First, Aspire, Democracy Prep, Green Dot, IDEA, Mastery, Match, Noble Network, Promise Academies, Rocketship, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.

Anyone with the most rudimentary, university-based, public school teacher certification training—including philosophy of education, educational psychology and learning theory—will likely find it shocking to read what Golann describes observing in her year-and-a-half ethnographic study. Yet Dream Academy exemplifies the kind of schooling so many families are choosing—based on a promise that college admission will follow.

SLANT, the basic behavioral script launched in the KIPP schools, has been copied across no-excuses charter schools including Dream Academy:  S (sit up straight), L (listen), A (ask questions), N (nod for understanding ), and T (track the speaker).  Dream Academy has added more than three dozen other possible infractions (divided into three categories according to their seriousness) for which students earn a range of penalties: “Over the course of the school year, teachers at Dream Academy assigned a total of 15,423 infractions to the school’s approximately 250 students. Students on average received 60 infractions over 188 days or approximately 1 infraction every 3 days. Six students, with an average GPA of 3.9, managed to slip by without a single infraction over the school year; on the other extreme, one fifth-grade Black boy, with a 1.36 GPA accumulated 295 infractions. Teachers had little choice but to enforce the school’s rigid behavioral scripts because they too were evaluated on their adherence to them.” (p. 32)

Golann, the ethnographer, shapes her analysis from the point of view of the sociologist: “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14)  “If ‘no excuses’ is supposed to be about the school making no excuses for student failure, it ends up being about the school accepting no excuses from students for deviating from the school’s rigid behavioral script… Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40)

Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children: “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earningA sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset. Middle-class families foster in their children a sense of entitlement whereby their children feel deserving of other people’s time and resources. Children with a sense of entitlement believe that others are partially responsible for their success. Through their self-advocacy, entitled students gain advantages for themselves, from extra attention in preschool to classwork assistance in elementary school to a grade bump in college… Schools also cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school… Scholars have criticized the ‘myth of meritocracy’ for fostering a ‘context-neutral mindset’ that ignores or minimizes the structural obstacles that make it difficult for certain racial and socioeconomic groups to climb the social ladder. For affluent White students, believing that they have earned their way through hard work legitimates social privilege. For low-income students of color, conversely, believing in a meritocratic system puts students in the precarious position of deriving their self-worth from their achievements.” (pp. 46-47)

Golann explores Dream Academy’s failure to work with students to develop critical thinking and the kinds of study and interactive skills they will need if they do go on to college: “Dream Academy was successful in getting its middle school students to think about college and in getting its high school graduates to apply to, and be admitted to, college.  But… Dream Academy’s rigid behavioral scripts did not encourage students to develop the types of cultural capital that higher-income students use to gain advantages in college. Cultural capital, which I have defined as tools of interaction, comprises the attitudes, skills, and styles that allow individuals to navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations. These tools include skills like how to express an opinion, be flexible, display leadership, advocate a position, and make independent decisions.” (p. 58)

Finally Dream Academy teachers’ obsession with minute behavioral infractions undermines trust and generates anger and antagonism: “No-excuses schools ‘sweat the small stuff.’  Under a sweating-the-small-stuff approach, authority is exercised over ‘a multitude of items of conduct—dress, deportment, manners—that constantly occur and constantly come up for judgment.’… (A)s teachers took on the role of disciplinarians, they became enmeshed in a racist system that perpetuated stereotypes of Black and Brown bodies as needing to be controlled rather than one that humanized students as individuals to be understood, cared for, and respected.  It is unlikely that belittling and shouting at students, for example, would be acceptable at an affluent White school, yet these practices are common at no-excuses schools, which serve almost exclusively Black and Latino students.” (pp. 86-99)

Golann concludes: “Instead of developing a sense of ease with figures of authority, most of whom are White, these young Black and Latino kids developed a sense of antagonism, learning to be distant, suspicious, and resentful. A sense of antagonism impacts learning and classroom management, but also shapes how students learn to interact with authority more broadly… Sociologist Pedro Noguera writes, “When children are presumed to be wild, uncontrollable, and potentially dangerous, it is not surprising that antagonistic relations with the adults who are assigned to control them develop.” (p. 101)

In a later section of the book, Golann profiles the teachers who find themselves working in schools like Dream Academy.  Many of them are young, many inexperienced, many from Teach for America.  And, despite that Dream Academy claims the school’s scripted discipline makes it “teacher-proof,” many teachers last only for a year or two.  In the year before Golann conducted her study, the school was able to retain only 44 percent of its teachers.

In contrast to the education philosophy at Dream Academy, Paulo Freire, the father of liberation pedagogy, understands education as a mutual partnership between student and teacher: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” The efforts of “the humanist, revolutionary educator” “must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization… (Teachers) must be partners of the students in their relations with them.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp. 53-56)