Ohio’s Poorest School Districts Need Support Instead of Punitive HB 70 State Takeover

Ohio is in the midst of a big fight about the state takeover of its lowest scoring school districts.  If a school district gets an “F” grade for three years running on the state’s school district report card, the state takes over the district under House Bill 70 and appoints an Academic Distress Commission, which appoints a CEO. The CEO, with almost complete control of the district, can fire and hire at will.  He or she is supposed to turn around the district. The community continues to elect a school board, but the elected school board has no power.

Youngstown and Lorain, the two school districts taken over three years ago, are still earning “F” ratings. Today in Lorain, there is a state of emergency because the community has entirely lost confidence in the CEO, David Hardy.  He has arrogantly refused to bring his family to live in the school district, and he has refused even to meet with the elected board of education. Peter Greene, who once taught in Lorain, has traced some of this ugly history in his blog and in Forbes Magazine.

The 2002, federal law, No Child Left Behind imposed a regime of standardized testing on America’s public schools. It outlined punishments for the schools that could not raise scores, with some pretty serious punishments if, after several years, a school could not demonstrate improvement. These prescribed punishments were called “turnarounds,” and the assumption was that it is possible just to turn around a school in a relatively short time. The federal turnaround sanctions included firing the teachers and half the staff, charterizing the school, turning the school over to an Education Management Organization (EMO), or closing the school.  Arne Duncan, who became Education Secretary in 2009, intensified emphasis on turnarounds in programs like Race to the Top.

While state takeover was not one of the  prescribed turnarounds in federal law, it has been a favorite in many states. Like many of the other turnaround strategies, it imposes a change in school governance. The assumption behind governance changes is simple: The people running the so-called failing school or so-called failing school district don’t know what they are doing and must be replaced by the appointees of federal or state politicians who know better. State takeover incorporates another assumption: The voters in the so-called failing school districts don’t know enough to elect a good school board whose members will choose a good superintendent.  So… the state must appoint someone from outside who will come in and oversee some major and possibly difficult changes to correct the failure of the district.

State takeovers have been tried for years across a number of states. They have never worked.  In New Jersey, for example, Newark’s schools and Camden’s schools have been returned to the local school boards after decades of failed state takeover. Michigan specialized in state takeovers—imposing “emergency fiscal managers” on local cities and school districts. The lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply was a program overseen by one emergency manager, a man who later moved on to be the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Finally, Michigan has returned Detroit’s schools to its elected local school board, which has appointed a new and promising superintendent.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools explains that state takeovers are almost always imposed on communities like the three currently under state takeover in Ohio—Youngstown, Lorain, and (this year) East Cleveland: “These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency, and self-determination.  In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

In a recent interview with the Youngstown Vindicator, Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine acknowledges that something needs to be done, because the state school takeovers in Youngstown and Lorain don’t seem to be working out. He emphasizes again and again, however, that the state must intervene.  And I suspect that DeWine, like many in our punitive test-and-punish era, favors some sort of governance change.

But what if the problem is not governance? What if the people in charge of the schools in Youngstown and Lorain and now East Cleveland did know what they were doing, but the challenges they faced were daunting.

In Ohio, school funding fails to provide what people in even more affluent communities feel is essential. There are hundreds of moderate-income school districts in Ohio that must choose these days between nurses and certified school librarians and counselors and music programs.  Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are all communities, however, where over time the local tax base has collapsed as industry has shut down. These are communities of desperate and concentrated family poverty, places where virtually all of the students are poor. Ohio’s state basic aid and poverty assistance is far too meager to provide enough assistance.

Governor DeWine says he believes we must do something to improve opportunity for the children in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  Let’s suppose we try a different kind of experiment, and add the kind of resources striking teachers have been demanding  from West Virginia to California.

What if every child in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland were provided enriched Pre-Kindergarten? What if all the children in these cities were provided enriched all-day Kindergarten in classes of 15 children? What if class size in the elementary grades in these communities were limited to 15 children in Kindergarten through third grade and classes in fourth through sixth grade were limited to 18 students?  What if every one of the schools in these communities had a nurse, a counselor, a social worker, a school psychologist and a certified librarian? In addition, what if the state supported wraparound health and human service supports for the children in these schools and their families?  What if all students whose primary language is not English were part of enriched bilingual programs?  What if the entire curriculum were made language-rich with reading and writing infused across all the classes? What if every child were engaged in accelerated conceptual mathematics? What if, after third grade, every one of these schools had an instrumental music program? What if every school had an art teacher and every high school a theater program? What if the elementary school libraries—many of them shuttered today across Ohio—were reopened and new books added? And what if the elementary school children in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland had a story-hour every week and, with the guidance of a certified librarian, a chance to choose books to check out?

Ohio prefers punishments as a response to its low-scoring public schools—the third grade guarantee—state report cards that rate schools and school districts with letter grades—the diversion of school funding out of low-scoring school districts to send children to charter schools and give them vouchers for private school tuition—and the ultimate punishment, state takeover. The federal government isn’t prescribing punishments like these any more, because it’s clear No Child Left Behind and its high-stakes testing strategy didn’t work. But Ohio continues to double down on  test-and-punish.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics and a primary reason why punishments like state takeover are so unfair: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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… 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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss shares a commentary in which the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explain in more detail why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Ohio needs to stop using state takeover to beat up on its poorest Black and Brown school districts and support better education for the children in these communities.

Public Education Partners has drafted a model resolution endorsing the repeal of Ohio HB 70.  School boards and other organizations are invited to pass this resolution and submit it to Governor DeWine and members of the Ohio Legislature.


Momentum Grows for Desperately Needed Regulation of Charter Schools

Last summer the Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education’s published a fine report on the privatization of public education.  Grading the States begins with a reminder that charter schools educate the few at the expense of the many: “The ability for every child, regardless of race, income, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristic, to obtain a free quality public education is a foundational principle in American society.  This principle is based on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn…. Although the public school system is not perfect and has continual room for improvement, it is… the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of students… continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools….”

Wooed by the ideology of freedom of choice, however, the public has not been willing to demand that government rein in what the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris has called “charters gone wild.” However two recent news analyses highlight growing public skepticism and even outrage about charter schools destroying local public school districts.

For The American Prospect, Rachel M. Cohen summarizes what she calls “the washout” in the past month of charter schools in California: “Following the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ six-day strike, where opposition to charters was a central point of the teachers’ advocacy, the L.A. school board approved a nonbinding resolution in support of an eight-to-ten month moratorium on new charter schools, pending a study on California’s charter laws… A public opinion survey of Los Angeles County residents taken during January and the first two weeks of February found that 75 percent of respondents said they wanted to focus on improving existing public schools, and just 25 percent said the focus should be on giving families more school choices… Further north in California, teachers in Oakland went on strike in late February, ending with an agreement that included among other things, (a resolution for) a moratorium on charter schools… Last week, the California Assembly approved a bill that would subject all charter schools in the state to the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws that traditional public schools are subject to… And that’s likely not all.  Other bills that have been introduced would place a cap on charter schools, limit where charter schools could open, and create new ways to deny charter school applications.”

Cohen adds that a pro-public school candidate, Jackie Goldberg, was the leader—with 48 percent of the vote—in a field of ten candidates for a position on the Los Angeles school board.  The run-off election will take place in May.  And Governor Gavin Newsom and California state superintendent Tony Thurmond have established a select committee to consider further regulation and report out by July. The path to reform may not be smooth, however: Diane Ravitch points out that the committee is loaded with representatives of the charter sector.

Penn State University school finance expert, Matthew Gardner Kelly examines the same issue that became apparent during the teachers’ strikes in California. Charter schools do more damage than many people have realized by siphoning public funding dollars out of the public schools: “From California to Wisconsin, efforts to stop charter school growth are gaining momentum. In the April 2019 mayoral election in Chicago, both candidates say they want to halt charter school expansion.  Financial issues lie at the core of these efforts.  Schools were hit particularly hard by the 2008 recession. Many states cut education funding. As a scholar of school finance, I would argue that charter school expansion is making this bad situation worse… The details of how school funding is structured differ by state, and even by districts within a given state.  Despite this variation a number of studies have shown that charter school growth hurts the finances of nearby public school districts. Recent studies from New York and North Carolina have found that charter expansion negatively impacts local districts’ finances above and beyond simply losing per pupil revenue because of declining enrollments. In Pennsylvania, the local district makes a tuition payment to the charter school enrolling each student from that district.  The payment is based on per-pupil spending for similar students. For example, if a fourth grader leaves a public school in the Pittsburgh School District to attend a charter, the Pittsburgh School District is required to pay the charter school $16,805.99—which is the average amount the district spends on a student in the district.”

Kelly describes how charter schools have contributed to a financial crisis in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: “Bethlehem Area School District paid $25 million in charter school tuition payments in 2017.  It was not possible to save $25 million with the students gone, however, because of the way the students were distributed across the district. The students enrolled in charter schools came from 13 different grades in 22 different schools. Since students moving to a charter were rarely all of the students from a single school, grade or class, the district was not able to reduce staff or close classes to help cover the charter tuition payments… When (charter tuition) payments are repeated and distributed unevenly across schools and grades, it adds up to millions of dollars… Bethlehem Area School District had 1,900 students, about 12 percent of the districts population, enrolled in charter school in 2017.”  Kelly concludes: “Charter school  expansion drains dollars from local districts in other ways as well. For example, charters enroll far fewer students with characteristics that require additional financial resources, including students with disabilities and English language learners. These dynamics compound the financial difficulties for traditional public schools, which are required to educate all students.”

Then there are the shocking charter school scandals.  The scandals happen regularly, although they are usually reported in local newspapers—which makes it hard to realize the nationwide scale of fraud, conflicts of interest, and corruption. (Check out the Network for Public Education’s list of charter school scandals in 2018 alone.)

This past week’s scandal made the NY Times, because the nonprofit whose operators were profiting from Texas charter school dollars is Southwest Key, the same contractor that has been warehousing migrant children at the border.  Kim Barker reports: “At East Austin College Prep in Texas, raccoons and rats invade offices and classrooms.  When it rains, the roof of the main building leaks. Room 106 was so rickety a chair leg fell through the floor. Yet for all this, the secondary school pays almost $900,000 in annual rent.  It has little choice: Its landlord is also its founder, Southwest Key Programs, a charity that is the nation’s largest provider of shelters for migrant children.”

Barker continues: “The nonprofit says it formed the charter school and three others to help disadvantaged students get to college, but Southwest Key has financially benefited from the schools.  Not only does it collect rent, but it has forced them to hire its for-profit companies, which have charged high fees for everything from maintenance to school lunches… The operations of the charter schools, serving about 1,000 students, show how Southwest Key profits off public money, boosting compensation for charity leaders and stockpiling tens of millions of dollars… A dozen years ago, Southwest Key decided to open charter schools and for-profit companies, including a florist, that ended up funneling money into the charity. The charters, called Promesa Public Schools, pay almost $1.4 million in rent annually to Southwest Key… Money from the schools and for-profits helped raise salaries for charity officials, letting them collect pay far beyond the federal cap for migrant shelter grants—$187,000 in 2017.  Mr. Sanchez (Juan Sanchez, Southwest Key’s founder) was paid $1.5 million that year….. His wife, Jennifer Nelson, earned $500,000 as a vice president, and Melody Chung, the chief financial officer, was paid $1 million. Mr Sanchez resigned on Monday (March 11).”

Grading the States, last year’s report from the Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education, summarizes the absence of academic and financial regulations in the laws that established charter schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia.  Here are just some of the problems: “Of the 44 states and District of Columbia with charter laws, 28 of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools…. Thirty-eight (38) of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers….  Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two (22) states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”

Fortunately teachers on-strike in California—a state which provides school districts virtually no control over the expansion of charter schools within their boundaries and a state where regulation has been extremely lax—have strengthened the political will to rein in an out of control charter sector.  We must hope that the fervor for regulation continues in California and that it becomes contagious enough to drive the political will for stronger oversight across other states as well.

Judge Tells DeVos She Can’t Delay “Significant Disproportionality Rule” in Special Education

The goal at school ought to be providing appropriate curricula and support to enable each child to realize her or his promise. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special education programs address the needs of children with disabilities. Over the years, however, it has become apparent that children of color have too often been assigned to special education. President Obama’s administration created a rule to address this situation, but Betsy DeVos delayed the rule’s implementation.  Now a federal judge says DeVos’s department must enforce the rule and investigate whether children of color are being disproportionately misdiagnosed.

The “significant disproportionality rule” was supposed to go into effect last summer, but Betsy DeVos delayed implementation of the law for two years—until 2020.  Last week, however,  a federal court ruled that Betsy DeVos cannot elect to delay the rule’s implementation. The NY Times’ Erica Green reports: “In a decision on Thursday, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia called the Education Department’s delay of the special education rule, ‘arbitrary and capricious.’… The rule, passed in the final weeks of the Obama administration, required districts to examine policies and practices that contributed to the disparities and fund remedies. The judge’s ruling vacates Ms. DeVos’s decision to put off the regulation by two years.  Instead it will take effect immediately.”

Green explains how the rule will now be implemented: “Under the Obama-era rule, states must apply a standardized methodology, and establish a formula called a ‘risk ratio,’ to identify districts with high levels of disparities. Those found to have wide disparities would be required to set aside 15 percent of their federal funding to examine their policies and take corrective measures.”

Education law expert, Derek Black disdains Betsy DeVos’s arrogant attitude about enforcing rules to protect students’ rights: “For the second time this school year, Betsy DeVos got a judicial smack down for attempting to eliminate regulations from the prior administration.  In September, it was over protections for student loan borrowers. (Last week)… it was over racial disparities in special education.  In both cases, DeVos’s justifications for reversing Obama-era regulations amounted to little more than, ‘I’m in power now and I don’t like Obama’s regulations.’  The dressed up justification has been that the Department needs to pause the regulations so that it can ‘study’ the issues more. The problem, the federal courts have told the Department, is that it cannot just scrap regulations because it doesn’t like them, particularly when those regulations have already gone through a rigorous process of notice, comment, study, and justification.”

In a follow-up article, Black explains that with her attempt to delay the “significant disproportionality rule” in special education, DeVos is cavalierly undermining the concept of disparate impact, a basic and essential principle of civil rights law: “Congress went beyond just prohibiting ‘discrimination.’ It recognized that prohibiting policies with obvious or explicit intent to discriminate was not enough to ensure equality. Following Congress’s lead, the Department of Justice concluded in a 1966 report that policies that impact one racial group more than another should also be prohibited… The fact that some policy or practice disproportionately affects a racial group does not alone violate the regulations. The disparity, if serious enough, simply triggers further investigation by a federal agency.”

Black concludes: “Critics, including the Trump administration, claim that disparate impact regulations impose an undue burden on federally funded programs. They say the regulations force programs to focus too much on analyzing data and avoiding statistical anomalies.  Implicit in this claim is that racial discrimination and inequality are no longer widespread problems… To the contrary, data shows discrimination has not declined in the past 25 years.”

Black’s analysis demonstrates why it matters that a judge last week told Betsy DeVos that her department must implement the “significant disproportionality rule” in special education and must investigate why so many children of color continue to be assigned to special classes. Enforcement of civil rights laws helps ensure that public schools can fulfill their promise to serve the needs and protect the rights of every child.

Trump’s Proposed 2020 Budget Favors the Rich, Increases Inequality, and Shorts Public Education

Nobody paid much attention to President Trump’s 2020 federal budget proposal for education when it was released on Monday. The 2020, K-12 education budget is similar to what Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed last year and also the year before.  In both of those years, a Republican-led House and Republican-led Senate increased allocations for core public school programs instead of cutting them, and Congress entirely rejected DeVos’s proposals for vouchers. This year, Democrats, who do not share the President’s priorities, dominate the House of Representatives, while key senators in both parties remain committed to maintaining what is already meager public school funding.

Summarizing proposed budget allocations for K-12 public education, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reports: “Title I funding for disadvantaged students, the single-largest federal funding program for public schools, remains flat at $15.9 billion in Trump’s budget pitch. Special education grants to states would also be level-funded at $13.2 billion. Also flat-funded are the English Language Acquisition formula grants at $737.4 million… (T)he office for civil rights would get $125 million, the same as current funding.” Head Start, which is part of the Health and Human Services budget, would also be funded at the 2019 level.

Several important programs are eliminated in the President’s 2020 budget proposal: Title II for teacher staff development, Title IV for students’ academic support and enrichment, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program.  DeVos proposed last year that these same programs be eliminated, but Congress preserved the funding.

The proposed education budget would increase the federal Charter Schools Program to $500 million—up by $60 million from last year.  The proposed budget would double funding for the School Safety National Activities Program.  Betsy DeVos’s proposed new tuition tax credit neo-voucher program is not part of the budget, because, as a tax credit, it does not require an appropriation of dollars.  If it were enacted, however, it would reduce the federal revenue stream by $5 billion.

Many of the biggest cuts relate to grants and loans for students pursuing higher education.  The NY Times summarizes: “The budget… would eliminate higher education programs, like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and subsidized federal Stafford loans, and reduce work-study funding as Education Department officials tweak the program to offer more career-oriented jobs for low-income students.”

What is astounding about the administration’s proposed budget overall—across all departments—is its unapologetic cruelty.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel quote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos merely repeating her usual talking points: “This budget at its core is about education freedom… Freedom for America’s students to pursue their lifelong learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them.”

Balingit and Douglas-Gabriel also quote Jim Blew, the Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.  Blew is more honest and utterly cold as he describes the administration’s priorities: “We’re coming back again asking for a reduction because the administration believes we need to reduce the amount of discretionary funding for the Education Department… That is based on a desire to have some fiscal discipline and to address some higher-priority needs for the administration around the federal government.”

The Hill‘s Brett Samuels quotes the chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky): “Cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans, then cry about the ensuing deficits, then ask for deep cuts in programs that help middle-and lower-income Americans… That’s exactly what this budget does. It’s a very, very cruel-hearted budget… Again, it’s not very much different from what was proposed last year, except it did extend those tax cuts.”

Chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) describes the President’s 2020 budget proposal: “The President’s budget highlights his priorities – unfortunately American families do not appear to be one of those priorities. In order to protect massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest among us, this budget decimates funding for infrastructure, civil works projects, Medicare and Medicaid, and many other critical programs. Instead of investing in our future, this budget takes food from those most in need, makes housing harder to access for those who have been left behind, and ignores the needs of America’s children and working families.”

In an analysis of the President’s budget proposal overall, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “President Trump’s 2020 budget… would make poverty more widespread, widen inequality and racial disparities, and increase the ranks of the uninsured.  It would also underfund core public services and investments in areas that are important for long term growth.  And at the same time that it calls for these extensive budget cuts reportedly out of concern for the deficit, it provides costly tax cuts tilted to those at the top… The budget would permanently extend the 2017 tax law’s tax cuts for individuals including those that confer large tax benefits on high-income taxpayers and heirs to very large estates. This would cost $275 billion in 2028 alone…. Together with the budget’s proposed cuts in Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, and low-income discretionary programs, these policies would worsen income inequality.”

To put the President’s budget for K-12 public schools in context, consider the past year’s wave of teachers’ strikes across the states.  While teachers have been protesting what have become noncompetitive salaries and decrying the lack of desperately needed services for their students, they have been trying to move their state legislatures to invest more. The federal contribution to school funding—now 8 percent—is also too low.  Last autumn as the school year began, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported: “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high-poverty schools, is 5 percent below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.”

As Trump proposes flat funding this year for Title I, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel relief that he hasn’t suggested cutting this essential program. We ought to be outraged that, during the past decade, federal funding has fallen so far behind—and that President Trump and Betsy DeVos have no intention of doing anything about it.

Politicians Forget that Cut Scores on Standardized Tests Are Not Grounded in Science

Last week the NY TimesDana Goldstein and Manny Fernandez reported on a political fight in Texas over the scoring of the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—the state’s version of the achievement test each state must still administer every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, still mandates annual testing, although Congress no longer imposes its own high stakes punishments for failure.

However, Congress still does require the states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education declaring what will be the consequences for low-scoring schools.  Goldstein and Fernandez explain that Texas, like many other states, still imposes punishments for the low scorers instead of offering help: “The test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, can have profound consequences not just for students but for schools across the state, hundreds of which have been deemed inadequate and are subject to interventions that critics say are undue.”  Schools have to provide help for students who are not on grade level. Also: “Texas grades its districts on an A through F scale, in part based on how many students are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards… Persistently failing schools, and districts with just a single such school, can be shut down or taken over by the state—a threat facing the state’s largest school system, in Houston.”

Decades of research show that, in the aggregate, standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income. In a country where segregation by race and poverty continues to grow, it is now recognized among experts and researchers that rating and ranking schools and districts by their aggregate test scores merely brands the poorest schools as failing. When sanctions are attached, political regimes of test-based accountability merely punish the schools and the teachers and the students in the poorest places.

In an excellent 2017, book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz explains the correlation of aggregate standardized test scores with family and community economics: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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… 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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Goldstein and Fernandez report that the political fight in Texas this month is about the test scores in third grade reading: “The 2018 STAAR tests found that 58 percent of Texas third graders are not reading at grade level. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a sample of fourth graders across the country, 72 percent of Texas students were not proficient in reading—a fact the state has cited as evidence that tough local standards are warranted.”

Like many other states, Texas blames the public schools.  But Goldstein and Fernandez present other factors that ought to be considered here: “More than half of the state’s public school students are Hispanic and nearly 60 percent come from low-income families.  About a fifth are still learning English.”  The state argues that’s all the more reason to set the passing cut score high and motivate schools to catch kids up quicker.

But educators and parents and some politicians in Texas are pushing back. They contend that the bar is set so high that students who are reading at grade level still score below the cut score for proficiency.  There is a lot of discussion of reading passages said to be two grade levels ahead of the students being tested and of something called Lexile measures, which involve the number of syllables in a word and are used to evaluate the difficulty of the passages on the test.

It would clear up a lot of the trouble if more people read Chapter 8, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets,” in Daniel Koretz’s book. Koretz explains that there is nothing really scientific about where “proficient” cut scores are set: “If one doesn’t look too closely, reporting what percentage of students are ‘proficient’ seems clear enough. Someone somehow determined what level of achievement we should expect at any given grade—that’s what we will call ‘proficient’—and we’re just counting how many kids have reached that point. This seeming simplicity and clarity is why almost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… The trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire educational system now revolves around them. The percentage of kids who reach the standard is the key number determining which teachers and schools will be rewarded or punished.” (The Testing Charade, pl 120)

Koretz explains that standardized test cut scores are not set scientifically. There is no scientific or even magical way of deciding exactly which reading passages every third grader must be able to decode and comprehend, and anyway, students in third grade are not consistent.  Koretz examines several methods used by panels of judges to set the “proficient” level.  He adds that the methods used by different state panels don’t arrive at the same cut scores: “The percentage of kids deemed to be ‘proficient’ sometimes varies dramatically from one method to another.” (The Testing Charade, p. 124)

Goldstein and Fernandez indicate that Texas uses the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as its audit test by which it judges the accuracy of the way Texas sets its levels of proficiency. When the scores on the STAAR are compared to the scores on the NAEP, politicians in Texas are really concerned because NAEP shows that 72 percent of third graders in Texas are not proficient—even worse than the 58 percent who score below proficient on the STAAR.

But the matter is not as dire as it would appear. The education historian Diane Ravitch served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years.  Ravitch explains that the cut scores on the NAEP are set artificially high.  It is much harder to reach the proficient level than what our common understanding of the term “proficient” would lead us to expect: “‘Proficient’ on NAEP does not indicate ‘average’ performance; it is set very high… There are four levels. At the top is ‘advanced.’ Then comes ‘proficient.’ Then ‘basic.’ And last, ‘below basic.’  Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. Among fourth graders, 8% were advanced readers in 2011; 3% of eighth graders were advanced. In reading, these numbers have changed little in the past twenty years…   Proficient is akin to a solid A. In reading, the proportion who were proficient in fourth grade reading rose from 29% in 1992 to 34% in 2011. The proportion proficient in eighth grade also rose from 29% to 34% in those years… Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough.”

The argument about what different “proficient” levels really mean is old and tired, but we can’t seem to move beyond it. Today we know that the No Child Left Behind Act was aspirational. It was supposed to motivate teachers to work harder to raise scores. Policymakers hoped that if they set the bar really high, teachers would figure out how to get kids over it. It didn’t work.  No Child Left Behind said that all children in American public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their school would be labeled failing. Finally as 2014 loomed closer, Arne Duncan had to give states waivers to avoid what was going to happen if the law had been enforced: All American public schools would have been declared “failing.”

As we continue to haggle about the cut scores by which we judge our children and their schools, however, there is one thing we almost never consider.  What if—instead of punishing the schools where scores are lower and instead of making their children drill harder and attend Saturday cram sessions—we were willing to invest more tax dollars in the lowest scoring schools?  What if we made classes smaller to make it possible for teachers to work more personally with each student?  What if we made sure that the schools in our poorest communities had well stocked libraries with certified librarians and story-hours once or even twice a week?

Koretz comes to this same conclusion, although he explains it more theoretically: “(I)t is clear that the implicit assumption undergirding the reforms is that we can dramatically reduce the variability of achievement… Unfortunately, all evidence indicates that this optimism is unfounded.  We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” (The Testing Charade, p. 131)

Argosy University Collapse Exemplifies Lax Protection of Students—and Taxpayers—Under DeVos

Argosy University, a for-profit college serving  8,800 students at 22 sites across the country, shut down suddenly last Friday.  Actually the collapse has been happening since 2017, but somehow across Argosy’s many campuses most people didn’t quite connect the dots.

And the U.S. Department of Education didn’t intervene until it became clear that the Argosy University had used $13 million in student financial aid for another purpose: paying off the debts of the collapsing institution. Finally when fraud was documented, the Department was forced to step in and deny further financial support in the form of student loans and grants. The university was so completely dependent on federal financial aid for its operations that, when the money stopped arriving, it closed mid-semester. It seems that Argosy was known for its graduate programs in psychology, and its closure leaves its students—some in the midst of writing their dissertations—in the lurch.

Argosy University was part of Dream Center Education Holdings—a nonprofit, religious social service agency.  NY Times reporters Stacy Cowley and Erica Green explain that when Dream Center acquired colleges and trade schools from the failing Education Management Corporation in 2017, Dream Center hoped to make a profit to support its charities. “But Dream Center had never run colleges… Almost immediately, the organization discovered the schools were in worse shape than expected, with aging facilities and outdated technology… Dream Center had anticipated a $30 million profit in its first year…. Instead, it was facing a $38 million loss.”

While last Friday’s closure may have seemed sudden, there were a lot of warning signs, including that Argosy University was in receivership.  Cowley and Green report: “The problems grew in mid-January when a creditor sued Dream Center Education Holdings over unpaid bills and asked a federal court to install a receiver to wind down the insolvent organization.  Within a day, a federal judge appointed Mark Dottore, who was working with Dream Center as a paid consultant, as its receiver.”

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel has been covering the story in a number of in-depth reports since mid-February. Dream Center has been trying to turn Argosy University from a for-profit into a nonprofit college.  On February 27, Douglas-Gabriel explained why: “Turning the schools into nonprofit entities meant they… (would) no longer (be) subject to what’s known as the 90/10 rule, which bars for-profit colleges from getting more than 90 percent of their operating revenue from federal financial aid. But the conversion was never finalized, and Dream Center’s deteriorating financial conditions gave the Education Department pause.”  DeVos’s department eventually blocked the institution’s conversion to non-profit status.

The U.S. Department of Education, which under Betsy DeVos, has been known for relaxing regulation of the for-profit higher education sector, was finally forced to step in to investigate when, in mid-February, $13 million in student financial aid disappeared without reaching the students.  Apart from paying tuition, federal loans and grants are designed to help students with living expenses, but last month, Argosy, trying to stay in business, spent the money to pay for its own operations.  On February 18, Douglas-Gabriel reported: “In light of those financial woes, the U.S. Education Department… placed restrictions on Argosy’s ability to receive financial aid, requiring the school to provide additional paperwork.  The Education Department provided the aid funds, but Argosy failed to give students the money left over after tuition is covered, known as loan credit balance stipends.  Students often use those dollars to pay for living expenses.”  On February 27, Douglas-Gabriel added that documentation provided by the receiver, Mark Dottore, showed, “Argosy used $4.2 million of the money to pay staff, $2.1 million to pay vendors and $1.7 million for operational expenses.”

Douglas-Gabriel reports that during February there were clear warning signs of Arogsy’s pending demise: “An Argosy campus in Phoenix ceased operation after being locked out of the premises. Meanwhile, Dottore fired Argosy’s chancellor, and nearly 100 faculty, academic support personnel, and financial aid counselors…. In some cases, professors were pulled out of class in the middle of teaching.”

Last Friday after the Department of Education had cancelled all loans and grants paid to Argosy this semester and as Argosy shut down, Douglas-Gabriel updated the report: “With the permission of their professors, psychology students at Argosy University in Chicago… grabbed books from the school library and from faculty members who were vacating their offices… Similar scenes… played out at other Argosy campuses as the chain of 22 career schools… closed Friday amid allegations of fraud. University staff and accreditation bodies are frantically working to give students paths to complete their degrees… ‘Everyone’s trying to help everyone, and our students trust us to try, but things are very confusing, ever-changing, and sad,’ said Deborah Lewis, a psychology professor at Argosy in Phoenix. ‘Our dean and I are trying to complete a dissertation defense with a student that was almost done. He’s in his tie presenting while security takes out the chairs from the room.'”

The U.S. Department of Education is being criticized for failing to arrange what is called a “teach-out plan” for Argosy’s students.  On Friday, Douglas-Gabriel reported: “The Education Department has faced criticism for being unresponsive and ill-prepared to help Argosy students. A group of Democratic senators, led by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), chastised the federal agency for failing to coordinate with Argosy’s accreditor to ensure a path for students to complete their studies—known as a teach-out plan—was in place when the university lost access to federal funds. Those plans typically include a list of comparable programs at other schools that have agreed to absorb students.”

But in their report for the NY Times, Cowley and Green more broadly criticize the Department under Betsy DeVos for allowing the crisis to fester for two years while students received millions in tax-supported financial aid to attend a for-profit college that was destined to fail from the outset —leaving many students with debt and at the same time non-transferable credits: “Led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Education Department has reversed an Obama-era crackdown on troubled vocational and career schools and allowed new and less-experienced entrants into the field… Ms. DeVos, who invested in companies with ties to for-profit colleges before taking office, has made it an agency priority to unfetter for-profit schools by eliminating restrictions on them.  She also allowed several for-profit schools to evade even those loosened rules by converting to nonprofits.”

DeVos’s New Tuition Tax Credit Voucher Proposal Is Dead on Arrival in Congress

Even if you believe public schools are among America’s most important public institutions, you have to give Betsy DeVos credit. She is perfectly consistent and doggedly persistent. Last week she proposed a new $5 billion federal tuition tax credit neo-voucher program.  She is determined to privatize the public schools; fortunately she doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

For the NY Times, Erica Green describes DeVos’s pitch: “She called it a ‘bold’ proposal that gives ‘hundreds of thousands of students across the country the power to find the right fit for their education… The biggest winners will be America’s forgotten children, who will finally have choices previously available only for the rich, the powerful and the well-connected.'”

So… what is Betsy proposing in 2919?  The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler explains: “The proposal would authorize a 100 percent credit for contributions to any state-sanctioned scholarship fund, meaning donors could get back their entire donation through their federal taxes… The maximum credit would be set at 10 percent of an individual’s adjusted gross income, or 5 percent of a business’s net taxable income.  Overall, the program would be capped at $5 billion a year.”

The thing is that, except for Texas Senator Ted Cruz  and Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, who are among the proposal’s sponsors in Congress, nobody seems to think DeVos’s new tuition tax credit vouchers are a good idea.

Meckler reports: “A similar federal tax credit was pushed in the first year of the Trump administration as part of the broader tax overhaul. But the overall thrust of the tax overhaul was simplifying the tax code, and the education tax credit would do the opposite. And some conservatives complained then that a federal program could lead to increased federal control over private-school scholarship programs.”

Green reports that Rep. Bobby Scott, chair of the House Education Committee, rejects the new plan: “House Democrats will not waste time on proposals that undermine public education.”

And Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, says the idea won’t move through Congress: “Secretary DeVos keeps pushing her anti-public school agenda despite a clear lack of support from parents, students, teachers and even within her own party… Congress has repeatedly rejected her privatization efforts, and she should expect nothing less here.”

Even people who are usually Betsy DeVos’s partners in promoting marketplace school choice oppose DeVos’s recent proposal.  Green describes the concerns of Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute: “The credit would spur people to demand their states participate, and as more schools benefited from federally connected scholarships, all schools would be financially pressured to use them.”

In a statement released by the Heritage Foundation, director Lindsey Burke and and Heritage senior policy analyst Adam Michel warn: “This could open the door for further education regulations down the road that neutralize the advantages of private education as well as impede future reform efforts. Future administrations could use a federal tax credit scholarship to require that schools adhere to certain admissions and accountability policies. That would mean the federal government could further dictate testing, reporting, academic content, and even bathroom policies for all schools involved. This proposal is also outside of the federal government’s jurisdiction. It would grow, rather than reduce, federal intervention in education.”

In her NY Times report, Green quotes a particularly poignant comment from an organization well versed in the problems public school teachers have been demonstrating across the nation all year: “JoAnn Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called the proposal ‘particularly tone deaf’ as school leaders across the country struggle to retain teachers who are fed up with low pay and declining work conditions.”

In her analysis of DeVos’s new plan, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reassures readers.  As she begins her article and before she even explains DeVos’s new idea for federally underwritten tax credits, Strauss confirms that DeVos’s new program cannot possibly pass Congress: “To be clear, the new legislation has virtually no chance of passing Congress; Democrats now control the House and most of them wouldn’t support it.  A similar idea couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm a few years ago when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.”