John Merrow: “Test-Based Accountability Has Failed Miserably”

Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP, a national test considered the best gauge of our public schools over time, were released this week.  Math scores declined and reading scores flat-lined.  The test is administered across the country every other year.  The 2015 scores for students in grades 4-8 were released last fall, while 2015 scores for 12th graders were released this week.

Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states… in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures.”

Here is how Liana Heitin, a reporter for Education Week, describes the 2015 test results for high school seniors:  “Much like their 4th and 8th grade peers, high school seniors have lost ground in math over the last two years…. In reading, 12th grade scores remained flat, continuing a trend since 2009.”

It is interesting to consider that this year’s high school seniors were beginning their formal education just as No Child Left Behind’s  school accountability scheme was getting underway.  The law was signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002 and in the early stages of implementation in the fall of 2003, as these students started Kindergarten. They are the first generation of students educated entirely in the era of high stakes test-and-punish. The goal of No Child Left Behind, as its name tells us, was to improve school achievement for all students and most particularly to close achievement gaps for those left behind.

Among this year’s high school seniors in that first NCLB generation, it is the students in the lowest-scoring 10 percent of the students tested who demonstrated that they have fallen farthest behind. Heitin explains: “Perhaps the most striking detail in the test data… is that the lowest achievers showed large score drops in both math and reading.  Between 2013 and 2015, students at or below the 10th percentile in reading went down an average of 6 points… the largest drop in a two-year period since 1994.  The high achievers, on the other hand—those at or above the 90th percentile—did significantly better in reading, gaining two points on average, while staying stagnant in math.”

What about achievement gaps? Heitin continues: “The data also show that large racial and ethnic achievement gaps have persisted.  White and Asian students continue to significantly outperform their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers.  While 47 percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in math, just 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same. There were no changes in the black-white and white-Hispanic score gaps for math or reading between 2013 and 2015.”

Reporters have asked whether the drop in scores might indicate that high school seniors are not taking the test seriously.  Heitin reports that NAEP officials replied: “Students are not interacting with this assessment any differently than they have in the past.”

John Merrow, the long-experienced and now-retired PBS education reporter, explains what he thinks these scores mean:

“It turns out that scores are down five points over the last 23 years on the (poorly named) ‘National Assessment of Educational Progress.’  The newest NEAP scores also reveal a widening gap in math and reading between those who score well and those who do not.  That has to be particularly disappointing to those reformers who go on and on about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap.’… (P)erhaps it’s time someone pointed out that test-based accountability, which has meant more drill and test prep and cuts in art, music, drama and all sorts of other courses that aren’t deemed ‘basic,’ has failed miserably—and there are victims.

“Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have been the losers.  Craven administrators who couldn’t or didn’t stand up for what they know about learning have been the losers.  Add to the list of losers the general public, because the drumbeat of bad news has undercut faith in public education.

“There are winners: The testing companies (particularly Pearson), the academics who’ve gotten big grants from major foundations, profiteers in the charter school industry, and ideologues and politicians who want to undermine public education.

“As I see it, the underlying message of the newest NAEP results is that ‘The emperor has no clothes.’  We’ve actually known this for some time, so isn’t it time to acknowledge the truth?”

As the One Percent Insulates Itself and Buys Political Power, Public Education Suffers

One of the things that has struck me about National Public Radio’s three week series on public school finance equity is that it is providing refreshing widespread coverage about the most necessary of basic subjects: how to fund the schools that serve the mass of children across America.  (This blog covered NPR’s ongoing series yesterday.)  Most of our public education conversation today revolves instead about education governance ideas being hatched by wealthy philanthropists, economists at think tanks supported by philanthropic wealth, and business leaders.

In our increasingly unequal society, institutions are becoming more stratified by class with the public schools (the focus of NPR’s current series) serving poor and middle class children, while elites buy exclusive, private services—a privilege they seek to replicate for what they consider the deserving poor through the expansion of market choice through charter schools. One need only read Rick Perlstein’s stunning new piece on the creation of Chicago school reform by the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to see how elites are controlling the policies that shape the so-called “public” schools that serve the majority. (This blog covered Perlstein’s article here.)

In a NY Times column yesterday, How the Other Fifth Lives, Thomas B. Edsall describes how those at the top are insulating themselves while shaping the institutions that serve the rest of us.  Edsall examines the updated research of Sean Reardon and Kendra Bishoff, sociologists who have been examining these trends: “The self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.”  Summarizing Reardon and Bishoff’s data, Edsall explains: “In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.  (This blog recently covered the updated research of Reardon and Bishoff.)

Edsall quotes Reardon and Bishoff, who worry about the implications for the rest of us of the growing migration of the wealthy to insulated enclaves: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power. As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle-and low-income families. In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high-income families interact with middle-and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”  It is also entirely possible that, lacking understanding of their poorer no-longer-neighbors’ lives, the rich might come up with educational policies that make problems worse. (Take another look at Rick Perlstein’s piece on Chicago.)

Edsall notes that between 1972 and 2007, there was “a threefold increase… in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees.” However, the investments the wealthy are making to cultivate their own children are only part of their power.  According to Edsall:  “Political leverage is another factor separating the top 20 percent from the rest of America.  The top quintile is equipped to exercise much more influence over politics and policy than its share of the electorate would suggest.  Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels… Equally or perhaps more important, the affluent dominate the small percentage of the electorate that makes campaign contributions.” Edsall concludes: “The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.”

Marketplace school choice has been the primary prescription of business and philanthropic elites for improving education and most particularly the schools that serve the poor, but such policy fails to address directly the documented impact of poverty on the children who struggle at school, and it glosses over the (however limited) protections democracy has traditionally provided to protect the rights of the vulnerable.  Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, summarizes one of the serious failures of policy designed by elites: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments.  One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ (cultivating the image, persona, resume that enhances one’s competitive position in the marketplace of ‘human capital’).” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The rush toward market competition in education that has transformed America’s poorest big cities—with the rapid growth of charter schools and the closure of many neighborhood schools— exemplifies the power of the wealthy who are designing policy according to the rules of the business world.  The political philosopher Benjamin Barber captures the power dynamic among the elites who create and the rest of us who may participate in marketplace school choice: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

NPR Looks at Persistent Savage Inequalities in School Funding

In 1973, in the case of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the nation’s first school finance case under the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court found against the parent plaintiffs and declared that fairness of school funding is not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented.  He declared, “I cannot accept such an emasculation of the Equal Protection Clause in the context of this case.” “Is it ever really going to change?”

National Public Radio reports on Justice Marshall’s question in the first installment of a three-week series about the matter of unequal access to well funded schools. The series, including extensive maps of the states and demonstrating egregious inequity in the amount being spent from school district to school district and state to state, is a collaboration with Education Week.

Justice Marshall’s question strikes me as the heart of NPR’s investigation that includes not only analysis but also local stories from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania so far, and this is merely the second week of the three week series: “School Money is a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.”

NPR’s reporters set out to understand why some school districts (usually those that serve wealthy students) can spend so much more per pupil than the poorest districts. The lead article last week featured two suburban Chicago, Illinois school districts—Chicago Ridge that spends $9,794 per pupil and Rondout District 72 that spends $28,639 per pupil: “The simple answer is that many of Rondout’s neighbors are successful businesses. They pay local taxes, and those taxes help pay for local schools. Ridge simply has less to work with—fewer businesses, lower property values.  More broadly: ‘You’ve got highly segregated rich and poor towns,’ says Bruce Baker of Rutgers University…. ‘They raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases, and Illinois really doesn’t put much effort into counterbalancing that.’  To be fair, Illinois gives more money to Ridge than it does to Rondout.  It is just not nearly enough to level the playing field.”

After 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected school funding as a matter to be tried in federal courts, 40 years’ of lawsuits in more than 40 states have worked their way through the state courts. “Right now, 13 states are defending themselves in school funding lawsuits: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.”

This week’s second analytical piece in NPR’s series examines the long contested question: Does money really matter?   We learn about Eric Hanushek at the Hoover Institution and his libertarian collaborators at places like the Cato Institute who claim that disparities in investment are not the most significant variable, but their arguments are countered by the many regional stories that accompany this series.  There is the story from the suburban Philadelphia, William Penn School District, where the Spanish teacher has collected blankets for her students to wrap around themselves for protection during class in a metal building whose walls lack insulation. Parent plaintiffs in the William Penn School District are part of an ongoing school funding lawsuit “in an attempt to force changes at the state level and make (Pennsylvania) spending more equitable and adequate….”  Reporter Cory Turner summarizes academic research documenting that, of course, investment in quality schools, pre-Kindergarten, and wraparound supports for the poorest families does help children learn, and quotes the common sense conclusion of Rutgers’ Bruce Baker: “If you have enough money to hire enough people to have reasonable class sizes and to be able to pay them sufficient wages so that you’re getting good people coming into the profession that’s most of the battle of providing quality schooling.”

Claudio Sanchez’s local piece on Kentucky presents another reality: adequate funding and equity achieved must be actively maintained or the poorest school districts will fall behind once again.  After a state supreme court decision forced an overhaul of school finance in Kentucky in 1990, money flowed into the poorest Appalachian schools: “Among the most significant of the changes was a new funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money every district would receive from the state every year.”  “And by the mid 1990s, it was paying off.  Reading and math scores shot up.  More students were graduating and going on to college.  A lot more.”  “But a funding gap between rich and poor schools remains in Kentucky, in part because lawmakers did not deal with the fundamental imbalance that comes with a reliance on local property taxes.”  And, “The Legislature has not approved any significant increases in overall school funding since 2008.  So, with the state budget flat, the remaining disparities are now frozen in place.”

Chicago’s Catalyist Magazine has just posted a commentary on Illinois school funding, a piece that is not related to NPR’s series, but that reinforces in a timely way the implications of the stories amassed by NPR.  Catalyst‘s analysis appears this month because Illinois is in the midst of a state crisis in the funding of K-12 public schools and the state’s colleges and universities.  Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has refused to sign a budget produced by Illinois’ Democrat-dominated legislature. Illinois’ school funding has reached the point of urgency as the state has been without a budget for all of this fiscal year.  Threats of school and university closures have not yet pushed state officials to resolve the impasse around last year’s budget.  Catalyst‘s Maureen Kelleher writes: “Springfield’s latest battle over education funding has roots stretching back to 1970.  That’s when a bunch of tired delegates to Illinois’ Constitutional Convention settled compromise language proposed by the late Dawn Clark Netsch to describe the state’s responsibility for funding public schools: ‘The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public educational institutions and services.’  To most people, that certainly sounds like state government should shoulder most of the expense of public K-12 schooling.  But in reality, local districts still bear much of the load, creating disparities that disproportionately hurt children of color, but also impact non-minority rural districts downstate… (T)he language from 1970 was not language a court could enforce.  Delegates knew that at the time, but hoped the wording would inspire lawmakers to take action on the matter.” In the rest of her article Kelleher describes all the competing proposals and negotiations likely to continue in Springfield without remedying a long-standing lack of fairness.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond wonders, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)  And back in 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall wondered, “Is it ever really going to change?”

Jonathan Kozol speculates about the answer to Justice Marshall’s question in Savage Inequalities, his 1991 book about the subject of NPR’s new series—the lack of school funding fairness. Kozol speculates that our society has failed to achieve equity in our provision of education for the simple reason that we have merely aimed for, “something that resembles equity but never reaches it: something close enough to equity to silence criticism by approximating justice, but far enough from equity to guarantee the benefits enjoyed by privilege… (T)he rigging of the game and the acceptance, which is nearly universal, of uneven playing fields reflect a dark unspoken sense that other people’s children are of less inherent value than our own.  Now and then, in private, affluent suburbanites concede that certain aspects of the game may be a trifle rigged to their advantage. ‘Sure, it’s a bit unjust,’ they may concede, ‘but that’s reality and that’s the way the game is played….’  Unlike a tainted sports event, however, a childhood cannot be played again… In this respect, the consequences of unequal education have a terrible finality… The winners in this race feel meritorious.  Since they also are, in large part, those who govern the discussion of this issue, they are not disposed to cast a cloud upon the means of their assent.” (pp. 175-180)

State Is Killing School District While Claiming to Save It

A new, 50 page, bureaucratic report from Pennsylvania’s state Auditor General tells a shocking story about ideology hurting children and promoting parasitic school choice at the expense of the host—the School District of Philadelphia.

Over time Pennsylvania has not only slashed state school funding but also expanded charter schools with a morass of untenable regulations—forcing the School District of Philadelphia to remove a charter school authorization cap in place since 2008—taking away a state reimbursement to help pay for charter schools—withholding contested tuition reimbursements for specific charters from the Philadelphia school district’s state school funding and awarding payments to the charters without ever holding required state hearings on the contested payments.  The rules by which Pennsylvania operates charter schools are clearly a trap for a school district in dire need of support from its state government.

Writing for the Philadelphia School Notebook, reporter Kevin McCorry quotes Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale describing the report’s findings: “Our charter school law is simply the worst charter school law in the United States.”

The report released two weeks ago by the office of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General  describes some of the constraints imposed on the School District of Philadelphia since in 2001 it was declared by the state to be a “Distressed School District,” and put under the control of an appointed School Reform Commission: “The District is… unique because it is the only district in the Commonwealth that has no power to independently levy and impose most types of taxes, including property taxes.  The District is almost completely dependent on monies received from the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth, and the federal government.  Given its status as a financially distressed school district, the District is also not allowed to engage in deficit spending.” Although as a Distressed School District Philadelphia had been permitted since 2008 to hold down costs by imposing a cap on the expansion of charter schools and on enrollment in specific charter schools, the school district launched a “Renaissance Schools Initiative” in 2010 to turn around persistently low-scoring schools. Philadelphia supports a huge charter sector—86 charter schools that serve 68,000 students, a third of students in Philadelphia, and half of all charter school students in Pennsylvania.

Then the legislature removed the cap on the authorization of independent charters in 2014, when, in response to the district’s financial crisis, the legislature did pass enabling legislation for a local Philadelphia cigarette tax.  Into that law legislators inserted a poison pill—a provision requiring “the District and the SRC (the appointed School Reform Commission) to accept new charter school applications and give (previously) denied applicants a right to appeal denials…” The Auditor General’s new report cites the two most serious problems the cigarette tax law will impose on the school district: “First, the loss of more District students to newly approved charter schools will put additional financial strain on the District’s operating budget as charter school tuition payments will continue to increase.  Total charter and cyber charter school tuition payments already topped $700 million in the 2013-2014 school year…. It is possible at some point in the future that additional charter school tuition payments generated from charter schools approved during the time period the Cigarette Tax Law is in effect will outstrip the revenue received from the cigarette tax… Second, the additional responsibilities placed upon the Charter School Office through the application review process and potential appeals process will ultimately cost the District money to provide the resources necessary to properly evaluate new charter applications, review resubmitted applications, and respond to any appeals.” “Given the District’s exponential growth of both charter openings and enrollments, the historical lack of closures, the required acceptance of new charter applications, and the continued legal challenges over enrollment caps, there is no current evidence to suggest that openings and closures will be an even trade off.”

Lawsuits already filed by charter schools and management companies around charter school authorization and growth and over the school district’s attempts to oversee charters have, “resulted in uncontrollable and unpredictable legal costs, as well as legal complications over the past several years. Constant litigation has impeded the District’s attempts to manage charter school growth, improve its financial position by controlling charter school tuition payments, and better its charter school oversight by implementing policies aimed at keeping the District more informed about its operating charters. Continual appeals have extended cases for several years, with no final resolution in sight.”

Especially problematic are 65 disputes the School District of Philadelphia has filed to protest what it alleges are questionable tuition payments to charter schools.  Pending the resolution of these disputes, the state has been withholding (from the school district’s state funding) these charter schools’ tuition payments and awarding tuition in question to the charter schools: “(B)y withholding state funding from the District without giving the District the opportunity to be heard in a formal hearing to consider the District’s evidence regarding disputed charter tuition payments, PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) reduced the District’s state subsidy funding, without knowing whether or not the charter schools were actually entitled to those payments.” “During the 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15 school years, PDE deducted $15 million from the District’s state subsidy payments for charter school tuition payments that remain disputed and unresolved.  PDE’s failure to address and resolve these disputed amounts is, in part, due to its changing procedures over the past four years… In addition, the CSL (Charter school Law) lacks clarity as to PDE’s requirements regarding charter school withholdings and disputes.”

The School District of Philadelphia, enduring a long financial crisis particularly since former governor Tom Corbett cut Pennsylvania school funding by $1.1 billion in 2011, has been trying to manage its state imposed responsibility to oversee charter schools with a skeleton staff: “The District’s CSO (Charter School Office) operated with a staff of only six employees and no Executive Director during the 2014-15 school year, yet it was tasked with overseeing 86 charters authorized by the District, educating approximately one-third of the District’s public school students. The CSO also inherited the additional responsibility of considering new charter school applications in 2014-15 for the first time since 2008. Further, the CSO is constantly faced with the possibility of having to revise existing policies and procedures based on court case decisions impacting its oversight capabilities.”  “By failing to have sufficient staffing and resources to adequately perform and document routine oversight measures, the District is unable to verify the validity of hundreds of millions of dollars it is paying to charter schools in tuition payments. In addition, the District is unable to determine if all of its charter schools are operating efficiently, effectively and in accordance with the charter agreements.”

Ironically, while the state auditor cites the problem of lack of capacity in the Philadelphia school district’s Charter School Office, the report refrains from assigning blame to the School District of Philadelphia.  The state has clearly created a fiscal and regulatory nightmare.

Southern Education Foundation Traces Tax Funded Segregation via Vouchers, Tax Credits

While schools remain highly segregated by race across the United States, the de jure kind of segregation in which Southern states had explicit laws to separate white from African American children was eradicated during two decades’ of civil rights struggles that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  As the Brown precedent was used to test and overturn segregation statutes across the South, one of the responses was to offer various tax credits to families whose children moved to the private, white segregation academies.  In a major report released at the end of March, Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding of Private Schools, the Southern Education Foundation traces that history as a backdrop for an up-to-date investigation of the role of private schools today as segregationist escapes for white children and the implications of the expansion of tax credits and vouchers to support private schools that virtually exclude African American, Hispanic and American Indian children.

Here is a bit of the history recounted in the report: “From 1954 to 1964, Southern state legislatures enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions attempting to block, postpone, limit, or evade the desegregation of public schools.  A large number of these acts were aimed at re-directing public resources, including those in the public school system, to benefit private schools.”  But such statutes were eventually overturned by the early 1970s: “Each of these enactments supporting private schools, even indirect efforts like tax credits shrouded in non-racial language were invalidated by federal courts or abandoned by Southern states that faced likely court challenges because the bills were seen as indirect, covert efforts to evade or disrupt public school desegregation….”

Today, according to this report, beginning in the 1990s, nineteen states have once again passed vouchers or tuition tax credits to pay students’ tuition at private schools including nine states across the South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia: “Most legislation adopted and considered to fund private schools in the Southern states in recent years has been introduced and supported with the stated purpose of improving educational opportunities and success for low income students, many of whom are students of color, especially African American and Hispanic students.”  The report notes that most of these states “do not collect or publicly provide reliable data that includes reporting of the race and ethnicity of students who attend private schools with public funding.  For this reason, there is no verifiable means at this time to determine accurately the demographic characteristics of private school students whose attendance has been subsidized by state funds….”

The Southern Education Foundation therefore considers another question as a proxy for the unavailable documentation that would identify the number of children of color receiving vouchers and tax credits: “(W)hat is the role of private schools in comparison to public schools, in educating students of color in the South and the nation?” After all: “Unlike public schools… private schools… are often entirely free to decide which children to admit as students, so long as the schools adopt a non-discriminatory policy and publicly declare that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Therefore, an analysis of enrollment patterns among white students in private schools throughout the 50 states can advance an understanding of the choices that private schools have made, with and without public funding, in selecting students to admit.”

What are the report’s findings?

  • Across the South, from 1998 to 2012, the percentage of white private school students exceeded the number of total white students in the region by 20 percentage points, twice the margin in the rest of the nation.
  • Across the U.S., from 1998 to 2012, the number of all students enrolled in private schools declined slightly for both white and students of color.
  • A third measure is what the report calls “virtual segregation” of white students—white students comprising 90 to 100 percent of a school’s enrollment.  “In 2012, white students were far more likely to be educated in virtual segregation in private schools than in public schools. “Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school (white) students attended virtually all-white schools in contrast to 26.9 percent of public school students.”  In South Carolina, 63 percent of white students in private schools were being educated in extremely segregated settings compared to 5 percent of the state’s public school students. The difference in Mississippi is 56 percent segregation of white students in private schools vs. 15 percent in the public schools.
  • The report adds another category: virtual exclusion—the number of white students attending private schools with 10 percent or less students of color. “Nearly two-thirds of white students attending private schools across the 50 states were in schools that virtually excluded African American, Hispanic, and Native American students.”  Again South Carolina led the states with 84 percent of white students in South Carolina’s private schools attending schools that exclude children of color.  Delaware came in second with 72 percent of white private school students attending schools with a virtual absence of racial-ethnic minorities.  “Seven of the ten states with the largest measures of racial exclusion in private schools were in the South… The percentage of white students in private schools in the 15-state South exceeded the percentage in the public schools by 37 percentage points.”

The report’s conclusion: “Today… private schools in nine states of the South, and eight other states including Kansas and Arizona in the rest of the nation have begun to receive special public funding through vouchers and/or state tax credits.  As a result, private schools receiving special public funds are no longer entirely private, no longer free of special government support.  With the special public funding of vouchers and tax credits, private schools should have a higher pubic duty to observe higher public standards—higher standards of non-discrimination—than before.  In other words, public funding of private schools, directly or indirectly, should… mean that token desegregation and ‘schools for whites’ among the private schools in the South and other sections of the nation are no longer acceptable as a matter of law or practice… The predominance of virtual segregation and virtual exclusion, which this study documents in private schools in the South and beyond, is clear and convincing evidence that private schools are failing to achieve a practice that meets a reasonable public standard for non-discrimination.”

Rick Perlstein on the Birth of Portfolio School Reform: Chicago—2003

There is nothing linear or didactic about historian-journalist, Rick Perlstein’s new piece in Jacobin Magazine, The Chicago School.  This is the story of a school district being ruined, and it doesn’t even touch on today’s financial mess—the failure of Illinois to distribute funds fairly—the risky bond investments that indebted the district in the financial collapse of 2008—the failures to pay into the pension funds and subsequent borrowing out of those same funds.  This is about a much broader topic, though Perlstein never uses today’s name—portfolio school reform.  Portfolio school reform—managed through mayoral governance and an appointed school board—is what has happened in Chicago and what has been copied across many of America’s biggest school districts. (It was later branded by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.) Portfolio school districts are places where school choice is expanded as an ongoing policy, with lots of charter schools and all schools—neighborhood schools as well as charters—managed like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and shedding the schools that seem to be failing.

In Chicago, business and civic elites came up with the idea, and they called it Renaissance 2010: “Travel back with me… to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEO of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools… They found hope… in a new kind of educational institution called a ‘charter school’—‘publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.’… ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,’ the Education Committee concluded.  ‘These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ ”  The plan was based on competition: “The 103-page report thus deployed the word ‘data’ forty-five times, ‘score,’ ‘scored,’ or ‘scoring’ 60 times—and ‘test,’ ‘tested,’ and ‘testing,’ or ‘exam’ and ‘examination,’ some 1.47573 times per page.”

Power has always been at the heart of this kind of school reform: “And since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.  Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.’  Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative—‘flexible’—startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning.  The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.”

The Noble network opened 16 charter schools.  “Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniform who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions,” and the school’s philosophy describes “strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.  Other new schools, like the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, were subsidiaries of national for-profit companies like Edison Learning.  And, finally, there were three campuses—eventually ballooning to sixteen—run by the ‘neighborhood organization’ UNO.  UNO was basically an old-school machine organization, rife with padded contracts, nepotistic hires, and graft. Its CEO, Juan Rangel, was Emanuel’s 2011 campaign chairman.  In 2014, the network was charged with securities fraud.”

Business, civic leadership, and local philanthropy came together to raise money to enhance the new school reform venture. Back in 2000, before it all began, came the Chicago Public Education Fund, which calls itself  “one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in the nation.” 2004 brought the Renaissance Schools Fund which rebranded itself as New Schools for Chicago in 2011.  The financial and thought leadership of the new Chicago schools venture has been provided by many people whose names are well known—Bruce Rauner; Arne Duncan; and local leaders like Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust; Helen Zell, whose husband owns the Chicago Tribune; Kenneth Griffith, billionaire hedge fund manager; Marty Nesbitt, friend of Barack Obama and head of a firm that acquires companies; Penny Pritzker; and Deborah Quazzo of GSV Capital Management, who later served on Chicago’s appointed school board and who has also been accused of shady dealings around educational technology and the Chicago schools.

Perlstein fills in years’ of details about interwoven spheres of influence and policies instituted to enhance competition in a school district managed as though it were a stock portfolio: “Last year, the CPS shifted to something called ‘school based budgeting’… Where previously a principal could choose his or her teachers based on qualifications and experience, since personnel costs were charged to the entire school system, now principals have to cut personnel expenditures to the bone.  Say, by hiring three recent college grads, or six Teach for America kids, for the cost of a nationally-board-certified teacher with decades paying classroom dues.  Budgets are based on attendance.  Attendance is calculated on an ongoing basis.  In a system in which ‘neighborhood schools’ are vulnerable to losing students to ‘selective enrollment’ schools, this turns every school against each other… Although, in an irony, charter schools are often protected from this ruthless market dynamic.  Because, more and more, they are part of ‘networks”: miniature school districts that can shift burdens from one school to another….”

I urge you to explore more of the details in Perlstein’s story of Chicago—a microcosm of today’s school reform across America’s big cities—and to enjoy the intricate comparison of Chicago school reform to Charles Dickens’ heartless, utilitarian academy run by Thomas Gradgrind in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

Perlstein concludes with a story of the closure of a small, stand-alone charter—the kind that Albert Shanker first imagined when he thought about the idea of charter schools.  In Chicago’s competitive school marketplace, this small charter is being shuttered for lagging test scores, but tearful students and their families pack the auditorium to testify at the hearing preceding the closure: “The tears attest to a fact the school reformers are constitutionally incapable of understanding: schools are not like convenience stores.  They are living, breathing communities, congeries of qualitative values and human interrelationships, storehouses of trust, friendship, heritage, and other such difficult-to-quantify characteristics that can only but accrue over time, and which, once severed, can never be replaced.  The tears are products of the incredulity that grown men and women in positions of authority cannot grasp this simple human fact.”  “On the dias were a half dozen or so board members in bankers’ casual-Friday togs: people like a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. .., a municipal bond specialist, a lawyer, a practitioner of ‘tax planning and corporate creation,’ the president of a curriculum development company.”

Just to clarify, Perlstein adds: “It’s not that schools never fail, should never close.  It’s that they should not close without due consideration that a school is also a human institution, with its own interconnected ecology.  Keeping that community together has value in itself, and adds value.  When you shutter a school, you kill something: a network of trust, a web of relationships.  You have to start again from scratch.”

Here is a timely and very sad irony: Perlstein begins his article by quoting a post from the blog of beloved, Blaine Elementary Principal and long critic of portfolio school reform in Chicago, Troy LaRaviere: “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent, and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”  On April 20, the date Perlstein’s article went to press, the Chicago Public Schools terminated Troy LaRaviere’s tenure as principal at Blaine Elementary School.  DNA Info, Chicago, reports: “Parents were notified late Wednesday of the abrupt change in leadership in an e-mail from Elizabeth Kirby, chief of schools strategy and planning for Chicago Public Schools.” LaRaviere has won awards for his school leadership and he has been nominated to run for president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.  He is quoted by DNA Info  in a post from March about the current financial crisis in the Chicago schools and the ongoing negotiations with the teachers union: “Our teachers have been battered by this administration’s attacks and forced to live with the blatant hypocrisy behind the calls for teacher financial sacrifices while the district continues to engage in wasteful spending, reckless borrowing and their steadfast commitment to steering CPS dollars to banks and investors that profit from our schools’ losses.”

Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”