Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

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Wisconsin Voucher Program: Exacerbates Inequity by Stealing from Local School District Budgets

A new study for the National Education Policy Center by Ellie Bruecker of the University of Wisconsin warns that Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program, as it grows, will increasingly exacerbate fiscal inequity across the state’s public school districts.

In the 2015-2017 state budget bill, Wisconsin expanded the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program statewide school vouchers by eliminating a 2,000 student statewide cap and sunsetting a district-by-district student participation cap. The new law provides that the participation cap for any district’s students will increase one percent a year until 2026-2027, after which the district cap will disappear altogether.

At the same time Wisconsin changed the way the state funds vouchers. While, before 2015, statewide vouchers were funded by the state through its General Purpose Revenue fund, the 2015 budget bill began counting voucher students as part of the overall enrollment of their local school district and deducting money from the school district’s state’s formula aid to pay for the vouchers:

“The bulk of state aid allocated to public school districts in Wisconsin is derived from a guaranteed tax base formula (equalization aid), which produces higher aid for districts with low property wealth and lower aid for districts with higher property wealth. To fund the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, this allocation of state equalization aid is reduced by the total cost of the vouchers for participating students in the district.  The bill also specifies that if a district’s voucher costs exceed the total allocation of equalization aid, the remaining payment would be deducted from other state aid—categorical aids, which are allocated for specific purposes such  as transportation costs, special education, or high poverty assistance.”

The expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program is  less likely to affect districts whose tax base is high and students are wealthy. Currently to qualify for a voucher, a student must live in a family at or below $44,955—185 percent of the federal poverty line. However, according to Bruecker, students with slightly higher income may soon become eligible: “Additionally, as of August 2017, Wisconsin Senate Republicans are considering increasing the income eligibility limit for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program from 185%… to 220% of the federal poverty level. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that if this change becomes law, it would reduce state aid to local school districts by an additional $16 million in the first school year in which it takes effect as more students participate in the program.”  Bruecker concludes that the new law will place “a greater burden on local taxpayers, particularly those who are already facing higher local tax rates that generate lower per-pupil spending than that in districts not negatively affected by the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.”

In Wisconsin the vast majority of students participating in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program were already enrolled in a private school before they received a voucher: “Nearly three out of every four students who participated in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in the 2016-17 school year were already private school students prior to enrolling in the program.”  The state has assumed “financial responsibility for educating additional students without providing a proportionate increase in the financial support it provides for those students… Because the per-pupil equalization aid does not cover the full cost of the voucher in nearly all districts, this funding mechanism decreases the state’s per-pupil investment, forcing local taxpayers to support a private school tuition program that they did not vote for nor that they control through their elected school boards.”

Bruecker recommends that Wisconsin maintain the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program’s income threshold at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, maintain the original district-level cap in any local school district at one percent of the district’s total enrollment, and fully fund the program, as in previous years, through the state’s General Revenue Fund.

She also warns other state’s to examine the inequity built into Wisconsin’s voucher program as a cautionary tale.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz Indicts High Stakes Testing in “The Testing Charade”

Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, is a scathing indictment of our society’s test-and-punish school regime, formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and continuing in the most recent version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Koretz, the testing specialist, is not so critical of standardized testing itself as he is of the high stakes sanctions that Congress attached to the annual tests in No Child Left Behind—punishments that have driven massive pressure on educators that has ruined our public schools:

“Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught.  It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which teachers grade this work. It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of ‘education reforms’ that progressively expanded the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise scores.” (p. 1)

Daniel Koretz’s biography at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes him as an expert on educational assessment and testing policy, and the book describes in considerable detail just how high stakes punishments for schools and teachers have corrupted the results of the tests themselves, narrowed the curriculum, and degraded teaching.

But my deepest interest in the book is Koretz’s depiction of how the testing that was supposed force teachers and schools to better serve poor children, raise their test scores and close achievement gaps has instead truncated opportunity for the very children it was supposed to help. How has test-and-punish narrowed the curriculum to basic reading and math in the poorest schools, and how has it forced teachers to focus on test-prep and coaching instead of enrichment?  How has test-and-punish forced the closing or charterizing of schools in poor neighborhoods? How has evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores resulted in firing principals and teachers in the poorest schools and exacerbated staff turnover?  And what about the children being held back in third grade due to a test score—even when they may be making real progress in reading and the adolescents denied a high school diploma?

Under current federal law, students and schools are given credit for proficiency only when children reach benchmark proficiency scores. A fourth grader who advances during the school year from a first to a third grade reading level will still fail to achieve the fourth grade cut score. Neither the child nor the teacher will be given credit for the child’s improvement: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

Reformers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124) Koretz explains at length and in detail the ways that teachers and principals whose jobs are threatened have resorted to raising scores—coaching for the test, drilling on materials likely to be covered, and in some cases where the pressure was greatest, cheating by erasing and correcting scores.

Koretz quotes Linda Darling-Hammond’s characterization of test-and-punish school accountability: “the kick the dog harder model of education reform.” And he explains: “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)  He suggests first that we stop judging all students and schools by benchmark scores. We must “set goals based on students’ growth, not the level of their performance.” (p. 235)

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss interviews Koretz about his new book, and she publishes an excerpt.

While I have emphasized the sections in which Koretz shows test-and-punish hurting the schools that serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, Koretz is a testing expert, whose primary interest is how high stakes punishments attached to a regime of universal testing have corrupted the entire operation of public schools: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gains. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice I wrote about thirty years ago—fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p.244)

Koretz joins a growing number of critics who indict test-and-punish school accountability. What is significant about this book is the thorough and relentless critique by a testing expert who carefully and sometimes technically dissects the evidence.

When State Oversight of Charter School Sponsors Prevents Any Oversight Whatsoever

The Ohio Department of Education has turned down the Cleveland Transformation Alliance’s strong recommendation that a statewide charter school sponsor–Cincinnati’s St. Aloysius Orphanage—no longer be permitted to open new charter schools in Cleveland.

In 2012, when the Ohio legislature approved what was called the Cleveland Transformation Plan to overhaul Cleveland’s public schools, Mayor Frank Jackson, who controls the school district under state law, wanted to have a locally-appointed civic and education group—the Transformation Alliance—approve or turn down charter schools.  The idea was that, under the guidance of the Transformation Alliance, public and charter schools would work in partnership. But the state didn’t really give the Transformation Alliance any power; it was established only as an advisory committee.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains the state’s recent action: “Jackson won limited power from Gov. John Kasich and the legislature in 2012 to let his school quality panel, the Transformation Alliance, recommend to the state who can create and oversee new charter schools in the city. That hard fought power was much less than what Jackson had initially sought—an ability for city leaders to approve or deny each new school directly. But when the panel tried to use that already-reduced power this year for the first time—asking the state to block controversial charter sponsor St. Aloysius Orphanage from starting new schools here—the Ohio Department of Education did not agree.”

Here is some background about Ohio—a national exemplar of poor oversight of its charter school sector—where charter schools can be authorized by nonprofit agencies, even agencies with no experience in education. Agencies frequently sponsor schools in far away cities, as there is no requirement in state law that authorizing agencies be located near the institutions they supposedly oversee.

St. Aloysius Orphanage was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1837. It has evolved from a 19th century orphanage into a 21st century mental health agency that also provides a local Cincinnati charter school for children needing special education services. St. Aloysius Orphanage has also become one of Ohio’s largest statewide charter school sponsoring agencies. It contracts with a for-profit firm, Charter School Specialists, to provide all the services required of charter school sponsors by the Ohio Department of Education. Under an agreement with the state, St. Aloysius Orphanage is paid 3 percent of the state’s reimbursement to all of the 42 charter schools it sponsors across the state, an amount it splits with its contractor Charter School Specialists.

In an August 2017 letter sent to State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Transformation Alliance Executive Director Piet Van Lier described the serious  problems uncovered when members of an Alliance task force spoke with representatives of St. Aloysius Orphanage: “Gaps in the type and quality of oversight are apparent. St. Aloysius staff represented on the interview team were unable to adequately answer questions about specific school improvement efforts. It was also not clear that St. Aloysius’s board had any member with an education background… The task force also expressed some concern that Charter School Specialists, which delivers all sponsorship services for St. Aloysius, also provides school treasurers and other services for sponsored schools for a separate fee. It is not clear how arms-length assurances are maintained.”

And the particular new charter school being opened by St. Aloysius in Cleveland this fall is part of a Florida-Ohio chain of charter schools—Cambridge-Newpoint—that is currently under indictment in Florida for fraud and racketeering charges.

Claiming that the Transformation Alliance missed a deadline in submitting its complaint, State Superintendent DeMaria has denied the Transformation Alliance’s recommendation to reject the school and deny St. Aloysius Orphanage the right to open additional schools in Cleveland.

O’Donnell summarizes the response of members of the Transformation Alliance to the state’s recent denial of its recommendation: “Members of the Alliance—Cleveland school district, union, charter school, higher education, business and philanthropic leaders—believe that the Cincinnati orphanage, which now oversees 12 charter schools in Cleveland, creates mediocre or poor schools across the state, just to offer school choices for the sake of choice, not quality. Alliance members also question whether the orphanage and the for-profit company that creates schools for it are mainly trying to make money.”

Some of New York’s Powerful Charter School Networks Win Right to Certify Their Own Teachers

The NY Times reports that on Wednesday, “The charter schools committee of SUNY’s Board of Trustees voted to approve regulations that will allow some (charter) schools to design their own teacher-training programs and certify their own teachers.”  This is, of course, the story of a charter-school-authorizing body in one state—a committee of the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees—that has been appointed to sponsor and oversee the operation and quality of charter schools.  But it is also a much bigger story about a nationwide problem: the influence of money and power on non-elected and unaccountable bodies that states have appointed to sponsor charter schools.

CHALKBEAT NY describes what the new rule will mean for the New York charter schools sponsored by SUNY’s Board of Trustees: “Dozens of charter schools across New York can now apply to certify their own teachers after the State University of New York’s charter school committee approved new regulations, over the vehement objections of teachers unions and state officials. In charter schools overseen by SUNY that apply to train their own teachers, prospective teachers now will only have to sit for the equivalent of a month of classroom instruction and practice teaching for 40 hours before becoming certified.  And unlike teachers on a traditional certification path in New York, they will not be required to earn a master’s degree or take all of the state’s teacher-certification exams.”  Charter school leaders had been lobbying for the new rules because they have been experiencing rapid staff turnover and a subsequent teacher shortage.

The rules had been revised in recent days, reports the NY Times, after State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia declared: “I could go into a fast-food restaurant and get more training than that.” Originally the plan had required only 30 hours of classroom training but the required hours of instruction were increased to 160 after Elia condemned the plan. However, the new regulations, which had originally required 100 hours of in-classroom teaching experience, were modified to require only 40 hours.

SUNY’s Board of Trustees is one of two charter school sponsoring bodies in New York. The 167 charter schools across the state that are sponsored by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee—including Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters—are the only schools to which this new ruling will apply.  Teachers certified under the new rules will be eligible to teach in neither New York’s public schools nor in charter schools authorized by the state’s other sponsoring agency. Ironically, the campuses of the State University of New York educate and certify public school teachers with in-depth programs that require extensive supervised classroom teaching experience.

Eliza Shapiro, writing for POLITIO Morning Education, explains that leaders of powerful charter school networks have been pushing their sponsor for less stringent requirements for their teachers: “The city’s charter networks have long relied on young and inexperienced teachers—often on two-year, Teach for America contracts—to staff their growing networks. Charter network chiefs have been plagued by high turnover among teachers who burn out after a few years in the classroom and move on to higher-paying jobs outside of education. Certification woes have also left some of the city’s most powerful charter networks vulnerable to legal trouble. Earlier this year, POLITICO reported that officials at Success Academy privately acknowledged being out of compliance with state laws mandating a certain threshold of certified teachers in every school. Charter leaders, led by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, have spent years pushing the SUNY board and charter-friendly legislators in Albany to come up with a solution to the problem of certification.”

In a joint statement, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and Education Commissioner Elia condemn the new rules: “We strongly disapprove of today’s actions by the SUNY Charter Schools Committee. With the adoption of the latest proposal, the Committee ignored our concerns and those of many others in education. Over the past several years, the Board of Regents and the Department have raised standards for our teachers…. This change lowers standards and will allow inexperienced and unqualified individuals to teach those children that are most in need—students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities—in SUNY-authorized charter schools.”

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, and the Alliance for Quality Education have threatened to challenge the new regulations in court.

It is becoming increasingly clear that 25 years ago when state legislators created charter schools with the claim they were freeing the schools from the straitjacket of bureaucracy, they naively created an education sector that is too frequently overly responsive to powerful interests and unresponsive to government’s responsibility to protect children. While the details are different from Michigan to Ohio to New York, the problem is that charter schools are shielded from government oversight in the public interest—even if, as in New York, the charter school sponsor is a committee of the board of trustees of a state university.

Trump VA Tries to End Ethics Law Prohibiting Staff Conflicts of Interest with For-Profit Colleges

While this blog focuses on K-12 public education, the Trump administration has proposed ending a regulation of for-profit, higher education, a proposal that is so outrageous it cannot be ignored.  The Trump administration wants to nullify a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect veterans by ensuring that staff in the Department of Veterans Administration are not being paid or otherwise rewarded by the for-profit colleges that, to stay open, actively recruit students who will pay tuition with GI benefits, federal loans and Pell Grants.

NY Times reporter Patricia Cohen explains: “The proposal to suspend the ethics law was published in the Federal Register in mid-September and is scheduled to take effect on Oct. 16, but no public hearings have been scheduled and no public comments have yet been submitted.”

Here is what the change will mean, explains Aaron Glantz of Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: “The proposed regulation… would allow employees of the Department of Veterans affairs to receive ‘wages, salary, dividends, profits, gratuities’ and services from for-profit schools that receive GI Bill funds. VA employees would also be allowed to own stock in those colleges, the waiver says, as ‘the Secretary (of Veterans Affairs) has determined that no detriment will result to the United States, veterans or eligible persons from such activities.'”

The NY Times‘ Patricia Cohen quotes Carrie Wofford, director of Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit advocacy group: “There’s no good that can come from allowing colleges to have unseemly financial entanglements with V.A. employees. Congress enacted a zero tolerance for financial conflicts of interest for V.A. employees precisely because Congress uncovered massive fraud by for-profit colleges targeting veterans.”

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss just published a letter sent by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin to protest the Department’s waiving the conflict-of-interest regulation:  “If this proposed change were to go forward, Department employees and state accreditors would be able to be employed by or own stock in the very institutions the Department and State Approving Agencies are charged with regulating… Many for-profit colleges have been found by numerous law enforcement entities and investigative reporting to have preyed on veterans and service members for access to their educational benefits, and have invested heavily in obtaining special access to military bases and populations. Loopholes in federal law have created incentives for many entities in this sector to recruit and enroll veterans as a means of gaining access to other sources of state and federal aid.  Many for-profit colleges have also put substantial resources into lobbying Congress and numerous federal agencies to weaken regulations that would protect student veterans from fraud.  Weakening conflict of interest regulations related to for-profit institutions is not only inadvisable, but will put our men and women in uniform and those who have served our country at further risk of predatory and abusive business practices.”

The effort to waive the conflict of interest regulations in the Department of Veterans Affairs is part of a wider effort by the Trump Administration to roll back rules imposed during the Obama Administration to curtail abuses by the for-profit college sector. The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has also taken steps to weaken rules that protect students from predatory activities by for-profit colleges. Michael Stratford covers these issues for POLITICO.  Here is his summary at the end of August of steps taken by the DeVos Department of Education to undermine Obama-era regulations to protect students from taking loans to study in for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak academically that their graduates are unemployable and unable to pay off the loans they have accrued:

  • “Moved to gut two major Obama-era regulations reviled by the industry that would have cut off funding to low-performing programs and made it easier for defrauded students to wipe out their loans;
  • “Appointed a former for-profit college official, Julian Schmoke Jr., to lead the team charged with policing fraud in higher education—one of a slew of industry insiders installed in key positions. Schmoke is a former dean at DeVry University, whose parent company agreed last year to pay $100 million to resolve allegations the company misled students about their job and salary prospects;
  • “Stopped approving new student-fraud claims brought against for-profit schools. The Education Department has a backlog of more than 65,000 applications from students seeking to have their loans forgiven on the grounds they were defrauded….”

Stratford adds some background to clarify what kind of for-profit programs the Obama Department of Education had been regulating and the current administration is trying to let off the hook: “For-profit colleges, which enrolled nearly 2.5 million students in the past academic year, encompass multistate behemoths such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry, as well as hundreds of small trade schools that struggle to make ends meet. Since a Great Recession boom, the industry has been dogged by allegations of predatory sales techniques and poor outcomes that left tens of thousands of students drowning in debt while the schools raked in billions from federal student loans and grants. President Barack Obama sought to curb those abuses with a regulatory crackdown that the industry blamed for pushing two of its giants, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, into bankruptcy, while others saw their stock prices nosedive and enrollment plummet.”

In her fine book, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler summarizes the problems for-profit colleges pose for our society: “Ironically, despite being regarded as part of the private sector, the for-profits are financed almost entirely by American taxpayers. They enroll about one in ten college students today, but utilize one in four dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the predominant source of federal student aid.  A 1998 law permitted the for-profits to gain up to 90 percent of their total revenue from this single source.  Other government funds do not count against this threshold, so the for-profits also receive 37 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits. In recent years, this combination of public funds has provided the for-profit schools with 86 percent of their total revenue, to the tune of roughly $32 billion annually.” (pp. 2-3)

The Obama Department of Education, to its credit, tried to crack down on abuses by for-profit colleges. The Trump administration is systematically undermining the public interest by rolling back regulations.

School Finance Expert Attacks Thinking of Betsy DeVos: the Social Contract vs. Individualism

Bruce Baker, the school funding expert at Rutgers University, publishes a regular personal blog that he calls School Finance 101.  Recently he has been posting reflections he calls “School Finance Prerequisites.” These pieces consider principles Baker views as foundational to an understanding of public school finance.  Baker is challenging the thinking of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, a long opponent of public education and a philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in advocacy organizations like the American Federation of Children and the libertarian think-tank, EdChoice, to promote school choice and her goal of making school funding portable—a publicly provided chit carried by each child to the school chosen by her parents.

In On Liberty vs. Equality, Baker examines a central flaw at the center of the promotion of school privatization: the belief that school choice will lead to educational equity:  “A common refrain among school choice advocates is that expansion of choice through vouchers and charter schooling is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.'” However, “a lengthy literature in political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences which most often operate in tension with one another… Preferences for and expansion of liberties most often leads to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate these divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, winners and losers.”

Baker continues: “(E)xpansion of charter schooling has largely led to expansion of vastly unequal choices.  Some charter schools, operated by politically connected and financially well-endowed management companies are able to provide longer school years, longer days, smaller classes and richer curricula than others. Those same charter schools are the ones most chosen, with the longest waiting lists… (T)he choices are unequal and unequally accessible.  A system of unequal choices is still an unequal system.”

In a companion post, On the Provision of Public Education, Baker considers public vs. private goods and the essential role of taxation to pay for public goods and services. Baker is describing what ought to be some basic lessons of civics: “Governments, established by the people for the people, collect and redistribute tax dollars to provide for the mix of public goods and services desired. Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual…. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”

Why is it so important to re-explain these basic principles of public funding for the public good?  “The necessity to revisit the basic connections between taxation and the provision of public goods comes about partly in response to a frequent argument of (advocates for) school choice… that public tax dollars belong (or at least should belong) to the child, not the institutions… Institutions—especially government institutions—are faceless bureaucracies, thus ‘bad’ whereas children are obviously ‘good.’  That is, even if those institutions are established to serve the children…  (I)ndividual parent preferences for the use of public dollars always supersede societal preferences.”  Baker argues that, “the tax dollars collected belong to… the democratically governed community… that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars… Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools.  The assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt (15 to 20 years) surely do not belong exclusively to parents of currently enrolled children.”

If you have been listening in recent months to speeches delivered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, you may realize that in these recent blog posts, Bruce Baker is explicating what is wrong with the logic in DeVos’s reasoning.  For example, here is what she said in a keynote address at the annual meeting last July of the American Legislative Exchange Council:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…

“Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students.’ NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

“This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Bruce Baker is condemning Margaret Thatcher’s contention—and apparently Betsy DeVos’s belief—that there is no such thing as society—only individuals and families.

In his recent posts, Baker defends the thinking encapsulated by the American Federation of Teachers in its anti-DeVos tweet—that public schools are an essential manifestation of the social contract: “We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”