Moving Beyond a Soundbite Analysis of College-for-All vs. Career-Technical Education

Happy Thanksgiving!  This blog will take the holiday week off.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, November 28.

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This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been talking about (economic) opportunity—the role of education for preparing students eventually to enter the workforce through career and technical education and apprenticeships. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, DeVos has proposed expanding apprenticeships to help fill openings for 6 million “good” jobs.

Surely students pursuing career and technical paths of study need and deserve better education, but we cannot assume that federal support for a modest expansion of apprenticeships is a solution for a large and complex challenge. Emphasizing individualism as usual, DeVos said, “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success… We need to expand our thinking on what apprenticeships actually look like… We need to start treating students as individuals… not boxing them in.”

Something is missing from DeVos’s soundbite individualism. Here is Mike Rose—the longtime educator, education writer, and professor of education at UCLA—also expressing concern for individual students, but in a more nuanced and personal way: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a new blog post, Rose reflects on what is often framed as an either-or debate: college-for-all versus what has traditionally been called vocational education: “This debate is an important one and is of interest to me… because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all. The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.” In a more recent book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose also considers the mix of career and technical education and the liberal arts that is the subject of today’s debate on who should get what kind of education. His recent blog post is adapted from Back to School‘s final chapter.

Rose warns against precisely the kind of narrow conversation we’ve read about in Washington, D.C. this week about college vs. apprenticeships: “Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky-rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of ‘educating our way into the new economy.’ And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality. On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.”

Rose isn’t willing to give up on the educational part of education and reduce the student’s experience to mere job training: “The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work… The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work?”

Rose cautions that we really do need to think about the individual needs of students, but this doesn’t mean some sort of libertarian concept of individual freedom: “We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke.  Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared… Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss.  Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.”

Rose suggests that the debate about college vs. vocational education rests on how we define the purpose of education: “Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life.”

Rose’s thinking takes us much deeper than the conversation in Washington, D.C. this week about jobs and apprenticeships: “I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having.  How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?”

Rose cautions, however, that educators must be fully attentive to that first question: What is the experience of opportunity?  “It is important to remember… that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience…. (S)tudents will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites… The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country…  (A)dvocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.”

I urge you to read Rose’s blog post, along with any or all of these books: Why School?, Back to School, and The Mind at Work. What is absent in today’s soundbite-driven, twitter-limited public conversation is serious reflection on educational, economic, and ethical considerations that ought to be the foundation for public policy.

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Eva Moskowitz Likely to Continue Plaguing the Recently Re-Elected NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

On the morning after the recent election, POLITICO New York Education reminded us that newly re-elected New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio had delayed important education decisions until after the election.  POLITICO‘s Eliza Shapiro and Keshia Clukey point readers to an upcoming and likely contentious fight about expanding the co-location of charter schools into public schools, a battle NYC’s charter school diva, Eva Moskowitz is ready to launch.

You can read about Eva Moskowitz in a clever and entertaining review in The Nation of Eva’s new memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz.  Megan Erickson, a NYC public school teacher and the book’s reviewer quotes Eva describing her own belief in controversy on behalf of her Success Academy Charter Schools: “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me… To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”

Erickson continues, “‘Excellence’ is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests.  Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities… But facts don’t get in the way of the sense of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story.”

In her review of Eva Moskowitz’s new book, Erickson summarizes what she believes are the fatal flaws in Moskowitz’s project—an alignment with wealthy hedge fund managers John Petry, Joel Greenblatt, and Dan Loeb, along with Don Fisher of The Gap and J. Crew, and the Walton and Broad Foundations to provide an escape from public schools for poor children in NYC who are able along with their parents to meet Success Academies’ demands:

“What does it mean for parents and their children to be ‘consumers’ of education, selecting from an array of options subsidized by billionaire benefactors? Some Success families would find out the hard way. Unlike in district schools, students at Success Academy are required to keep logs of their hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor parents, Moskowitz insists, ‘can support their kids in school, if it is demanded of them.’ And if the demands don’t work, shame will.  She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s mother, who ‘seemed… more responsible,’ to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a  second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families who, regardless of their intentions,  simply can’t meet the requirements.”

Erickson describes parents working several jobs, for example, and wonders:  “When… parents are forced to disenroll their children because they can’t meet the school’s demands for reading time at home, is it really a choice?  And when students with special needs leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were suspended for minor infractions… is that a choice?… District schools, run by the New York City Department of Education do not have the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor should they, since the United States has consistently affirmed by law that it is the responsibility of public schools to educate all students in the least restrictive environment possible… But even charter schools with a lottery system ‘choose’ students indirectly by limiting the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental involvement. This is an important part of Success Academy’s seeming success….”

Erickson highlights instances when students’ rights have been violated at Success Academies: “At the state level, children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as yet another Success Academy student with special needs received this past spring—are a violation of that right.  They’re also discriminatory…. (T)he hard truth of ‘school choice’ is that it leaves families with a multitude of options but few rights.”

POLITICO predicts that the issue of co-location of charter schools into public school buildings that continue to house public schools will re-emerge now that Mayor deBlasio has been re-elected.  You may remember that, as the NY Times reported in the spring of 2014, under pressure from Moskowitz and her allies, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s state legislature guaranteed that New York’s public school districts will provide free space in public schools or rent paid in private facilities for charter schools:  “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

In his new book about NYC’s Mayor Bill deBlasio, Reclaiming Gotham, Juan Gonzalez, 29-year New York Daily News reporter and the co-host of Democracy Now, describes the problems NYC public schools have endured in past years around co-location: “Moskowitz was at the center of many of those wars, inevitably demanding more space as her schools grew, with the Success Academy section of any building then routinely remodeled with new furniture, paint, bathrooms, and computers, while the traditional public school remained dingy and run-down, the students and teachers feeling like second-class citizens in their own building.” (p. 239)

Gonzalez summarizes his experience over the years reporting on Moskowitz and her schools: “In a series of Daily News columns from 2009 to 2016, I documented the combative style of Success Academy toward traditional public schools, as well as the network’s far higher rate of suspending children with behavior problems, and its pushing out of special needs children. But Success Academy has repeatedly defended its ‘zero tolerance’ approach for students who misbehave, with Moskowitz claiming her schools use ‘an appropriate disciplinary and restorative approach….’  Moskowitz continued to receive tens of millions of dollars from the nation’s financial elite while spending exorbitant amounts of money on a massive campaign to market and solicit applications to her schools to, in her own words, increase market share, all while paying herself a hefty salary that in 2015 exceeded $600,000 annually.” (pp. 239-240)

John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

Ohio’s Legislative Democrats Challenge ECOT’s Claims in Amicus Brief Filed with Ohio Supreme Court

At the end of last week, explains Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch, all nine Democrats serving in the Ohio Senate along with 30 of the 33 House Democrats signed an amicus brief urging the Ohio Supreme Court to find for the state and against the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the state’s biggest charter school. ECOT has been challenging the state all year to let it collect state per-pupil funding without documenting that students are actually attending school.

The Ohio Department of Education has been trying to claw back $60 million over-paid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and another $19 million for 2016-17.  ECOT has continued to claim that state law does not require the school to document that students are actually logged in for 920 hours each year—working with the curriculum the school provides—but merely that the school provides the curriculum to the students it claims are enrolled.

ECOT has challenged in court the state’s demand that the school document attendance records if it intends to collect payments from the state. ECOT’s appeal is currently being considered by the Ohio Supreme Court. Plunderbund summarizes the history of the case: “ECOT filed the lawsuit more than a year ago claiming it is not required to document how many hours its students (are) engaged in learning…  After losing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, ECOT has appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.”

The amicus brief filed last week by legislative Democrats follows the filing of another amicus brief in late October. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Bill Batchelder, the now-retired Speaker of the Ohio House, and four other former Republican legislators filed their own amicus brief with the Ohio Supreme Court. They claimed that the Ohio Department of Education “is violating legislative intent by requiring ECOT to verify its enrollment with log-in duration.” If you are having trouble parsing that outrageous nonsense (which seems to mean that the legislators intended for ECOT to amass tax dollars for students the school cannot prove are enrolled full time), it may help if you remember that only months after retiring from a career in the legislature including serving as Ohio’s House Speaker, Bill Batchelder opened a lobbying firm, The Batchelder Company, which represented ECOT’s founder William Lager until July, 2017.

In the introduction to their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats expose ECOT’s bizarre argument: “The issue… before the Court is whether the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3314 allows the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) the ability to use durational evidence of student participation to determine funding for internet- or computer-based community schools (e-schools).  Revised Code section 3314.08 and its subsections plainly incorporate durational requirements as part of the review of student participation meant to determine the amount of funding an e-school is entitled to receive from the state.  It is incontrovertible that ODE has the right… to use a durational element in a review of e-school funding claims.  It is incontrovertible as well that the legislative history of chapter 3314… shows that the legislature routinely amended the code to make enforcement and oversight of e-schools more thorough…  Finally, the Court cannot find in favor of the Appellant.  To do so leaves an absurd hole in Ohio’s constitutional guarantee to teach its children in free, publicly funded schools.  A decision that finds for the Appellant creates a void in which to take and squander taxpayer dollars without allowing any government oversight for the stewardship of those dollars…  The Ohio Constitution demands the state educate its children.  It cannot be Ohio’s founders and successive caretakers’ hope that those children would never be brought to a classroom (electronic or otherwise) yet the school and its administrators would reap lavish financial rewards.”

Toward the end of their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats declare: “The entire system of public school regulation is geared toward ensuring children receive an education.  The record in this case reflects that ECOT and other e-school amici failed in this obligation and are callous toward that failure.  The state should not have to withhold funding to guarantee those who purport to be educators take basic steps to teach children in their charge, but this case shows they must.  The state does not seek this level of regulation for its own sake or to target e-schools, but to avoid the tragic reality we are confronting in which thousands of students have not received education for which their alleged school was paid.”

The attorney of record on the legislative Democrats’ amicus brief is Joe Schiavoni, the former Senate minority leader and an announced candidate for governor. Schiavoni, who represents the Youngstown area, has twice introduced bills to regulate attendance reporting by ECOT and Ohio’s online charter schools. Describing his proposed legislation, which has never been brought to a vote, Schiavoni commented:  “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.”

This blog has tracked the long ECOT scandal.

As Privatizers Hone the Rhetoric for School Choice, Public School Supporters Need a Better Message

With Betsy DeVos promoting her one idea—that parents ought to have a right to choose a school—and all the money and politics swirling around the issue today, maybe you’ve forgotten how distorted the conversation about public education has really become. Who and what is really behind the push for school choice? And what are we being asked to forget about the role of public education in America?

First there is all the money being ideologically invested in creating the message that privatized education is better. Here, for example, is Kimberly Hefling’s report for POLITICO on the Koch brothers’ huge anti-public school campaign in the Hispanic community: “One of the newest campaigns is the Libre Inititive, a grassroots drive targeting Hispanic families in 11 states so far, under the umbrella of the Charles and David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity…. While the Koch network has long been involved in school choice battles, the push by Libre represents a new front in the fight by targeting Hispanic families—and a recognition that with Congress gridlocked, it’s on the ground at the state level where the network can disrupt the educational status quo. The Koch message on schools is shared by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime ally… Like DeVos, Koch organizers insist the push isn’t about dissolving public education, but about making more options available to Hispanic and other families. And like DeVos and her husband, Charles Koch has been a longtime supporter of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated for state laws that encourage private school choice expansion.”

Beyond all the money behind privatization, there has been a bipartisan papering over the real purpose of the dogged ideologues. But early in October, the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli exposed the real libertarian foundational principles  underneath school privatization. Ironically he admits that the social justice framing which promoted charter schools as a way to close achievement gaps was just rhetoric—merely a way to co-opt Democrats into supporting privatization: “While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made… (T)he charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall… Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities… But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans… So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump?… A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats… But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days… Most are non-union… It’s hugely important.”

Support for public education has been catastrophically hurt not only by the kind of money being invested by the Americans for Prosperity and by the libertarian rhetoric Petrilli endorses but also by the narrowing of the conversation about public schools to the sole focus on test scores.  Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade (see here) documents our society’s catastrophic adoption of high stakes test-and-punish—a regime that has been in place for nearly two decades—as the sole yardstick to measure the quality of public schools.

Jack Schneider, professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, urges supporters of public schools to insist on a different way of judging schools and a new language for assessment: “The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school.  As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores—about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain.  Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.  Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do.  Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking.  School quality is multidimensional… Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.  One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality.”

There is considerable irony in the fact that, while today the very wealthy far-right dominates the political rhetoric promoting the privatization of schooling, 50 million children across the United States attend traditional public schools. As privatization encroaches, the damage is much deeper than most of us realize.  Jennifer Berkshire just posted a podcast and transcript of her interview with Sally Nuamah, a Chicago political scientist who has been studying the impact on that city’s neighborhoods when the school district closed 50 public schools in 2013, after the rapid growth of charter schools in Chicago had lured many families away from neighborhood schools.  Public schools are core community institutions, and for decades it has been known that school closures have broad and traumatic consequences for neighborhoods.  Nuamah documents similar consequences in Chicago since the mass public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “(Y)ou see these communities are further losing population.  There’s less will, or less faith, in the traditional public school system across this poplulation, because they are afraid they’re going to be betrayed again, they’re going to have to move schools again, and that’s a very volatile situation.”

Nuamah continues: “Then there is the economic piece, and the fact that the number of African American teachers in Chicago has declined by 40%… It was very clear, just from talking to people, that they feared the larger consequences of what the closure of the school means, what it symbolizes, and the direct resources it takes from a community. People would constantly refer to the fact that if this community’s institutions close down, it would affect their ability to have healthcare, it would affect their ability to have employment. It would affect their ability to live in a neighborhood that is safe, because right now, the closed-down structure is acting as an eyesore.”

Nuamah describes the deeper impact on the self esteem among the adults in the neighborhood of the closed school: “I would hear people specifically say that people would think that they failed….  because the institutions that their kids attended were being closed down and they couldn’t protect it.  So (school closings) have to do not just with social and economic issues but also in terms of what people are modeling, what they’re teaching to their younger people.  What they’re able to protect for the next generation to come. They were… (losing) assets that were passed down to them from prior generations, especially because schools have always been at the center of civil rights and the fight for equality… It has more to do with the larger historical, social, and community-based roles that schools have played. In African American communities in particular, public schools had (a) long history of being the first public institutions in which African Americans got access… But not just that: schools historically have been a main social mechanism for the black middle class.  A lot of people end up in the black middle class… through jobs in the education sector.”

Billionaire Betsy DeVos and her friends in the far-right, libertarian sector are actively promoting the privatization of America’s public schools. The Republican and Democratic technocratic politicians have brought us twenty years’ of test-and-punish to discredit public education. It is up to us—parents and teachers who are the core stakeholders in the public schools and citizens who care about public education—to create a more nuanced narrative about the role of our nation’s 90 thousand public schools as an essential public institution.

Constitutional Protection of Equity and Adequacy: A New Frame for Testing Charters and Vouchers

Last week, at the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, posted a short summary of his new paper to be published soon in the Cornell Law Review. The paper presents new and, I hope, promising thinking about legally challenging charter schools and private school tuition voucher programs under the fifty state constitutions.

Black is an academic, not a litigator, and he is realistic. He devotes the last section of his paper to some of the challenges that will likely arise if his ideas become the basis for actual litigation. Nonetheless, given the failure of previous attempts to challenge school privatization, Black argues for significant reframing: “The question now is whether the constitutional debate over school choice can be reframed from one premised on an all-or-nothing approach to a more nuanced one that relates to how choice programs actually affect the public education system. Without this reframing, advocates need not waste their time in court…. If any limit exists on choice programs, it is how they relate to and affect educational opportunity in the public school system. Prior claims have attacked choice as problematic in and of itself, whereas this (new) approach asks the same question that all prior equity and adequacy litigation has: is the state delivering adequate and equitable opportunities?”

Black argues that in the past advocates, “launched attacks premised on the notion that choice programs were inherently antithetical to the public education system.”  Past challenges were filed at the statewide level in an attempt to invalidate whole charter school laws or voucher programs.  Instead Black suggests: “The facts that matter most are not statewide, but local.  Choice programs appear small at the state level and have little to no effect on most school districts… A narrowed focus reveals that the effects of statewide policy are concentrated in particular urban districts. From the perspective of the local urban district, the effects range from existential threats to serious impediments to equal and adequate education.”

Black’s first example is Newark, New Jersey, where, “the state’s arcane system of funding charter schools produces a funding deficit in the school district with each student who transfers to a charter. To be clear, the Newark school district does not just lose its state funding for those students to the charter school; rather the state requires the district to send charters an amount in excess of what the district received from the state. This funding mechanism, then, clearly decreases funds available for students remaining in public schools. As social science, legislative studies, and states’ own statutes all confirm, the shrinking education pot and flawed charter funding mechanisms are depressing per pupil funding in several districts at a rate that can seriously depress educational opportunities and academic achievement. In short, by developing district level data, this Article demonstrates public school advocates’ worst fears: choice is draining funds from public schools.”

Noting that all fifty state constitutions define the right to education and states’ duty to deliver it, Black explains how court precedent has established that state constitutional education clauses protect public school students’ right to equal access to educational opportunities and resources. Besides guaranteeing equitable access to services, courts have also affirmed adequacy claims that “focus on identifying a baseline of quality educational opportunities that a state must provide. Various state constitutions indicate that the state must deliver ‘efficient,’ ‘thorough,’ or ‘sound basic’ education.”

Black believes limits to choice programs must be conceptualized around the state constitutional promise of equitable access for all students to adequate public education: “If any limit exists on choice programs, it is how they relate to and effect educational opportunity in the public education system… (T)his approach asks the same question that all prior equity and adequacy litigation has: is the state delivering adequate and equitable educational opportunities?  If not, what policies are causing these deprivations?…  (C)laims must become far more factually granular.  Plaintiffs cannot assume that choice programs inherently harm public education. They must show it.  This requires more than simply pointing to the competition between traditional public schools and choice programs.”

“Plaintiffs must demonstrate that choice programs are actually causing or connected to inadequate or inequitable educational opportunities in particular schools. Statewide data alone will not do this, as choice programs remain relatively small that that level.” “At the micro level, however, the effects of choice can be staggering.  Statewide education choice policies do not affect all districts  equally.  Their effects are heavily concentrated on a select group of districts. These districts can have choice programs that enroll a  third of a district’s students —and those percentages continue to grow. As the following sections demonstrate, that growth is causing opportunity deficits in public schools, threatening the very financial viability of some districts, and stratifying educational opportunity across and within educational sectors.”  Black’s example here is Ohio, where the Cleveland and Columbus school districts “are bleeding money to charter schools and the state is doing little to address the problem. The state, for instance, recently announced a $464 million statewide increase for public education.  That increase, however, was swallowed by the $760 million in transfers the state would require districts to make to charters.  The deficit, of course, was most pronounced in places where charters are concentrated.  Cleveland saw a $5 million increase in state funding, but would have to transfer $141 million to local charters. Columbus saw a $40 million increase from the state, but would transfer $116 million to charters.”

Inequity is exacerbated, writes Black, because charter schools and vouchers are bleeding money from the very districts serving the poorest students who need expensive extra support: “The changes in education funding and student market share between the various sectors are also producing further stratification in educational opportunity—financially, qualitatively, and demographically.  First, because charter schools and voucher enrollment are not proportionally spread across states, they have primarily become the price students living in poor neighborhoods with poor public schools are asked to pay. These students, however, already have the highest needs and typically the most underfunded schools in the state. Thus, the concentrated negative effects of charters are often visited on a state’s most needy students.”

A short report cannot do justice to a paper of over fifty pages.  I urge you to read Black’s paper and consider its implications for the school districts in your state. Derek Black is an academic, and it is, of course, a long step from developing a new strategy for litigation to  turning the theory into a legal challenge to a state’s voucher program or charter school laws. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that serious experts are exploring how to protect the public schools in particular communities from the very disparate impact of state vouchers and charter policies. Because of the way state laws operate, while the financial viability of many school districts is untouched, other school districts are losing millions of state and local dollars each year. The losses are growing rapidly in urban public school districts that desperately need to be able to provide basic services and educational enrichment for our nation’s poorest children.