Charter Schools Undermine the Public Schools Which Serve the Very Children Cory Booker Worries About

On Monday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker published a column in the NY Times to announce his support for charter schools. I’ll give Booker credit for being honest. Until now, as an active candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Booker has tried to hedge this issue, even though support for charter schools—and at one time even vouchers—has been among his primary priorities in public life for two decades.

I’ll also give Booker credit for endorsing, in this week’s column, better support for traditional public schools: “As a party, we need to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes for children who are underserved and historically disadvantaged.  That must mean significantly increasing funding for public schools, raising teacher pay, fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, investing in universal preschool, eliminating child poverty—and yes, supporting high-performing public charter schools if and when they are the right fit for a community, are equitable and inclusive, and play by the same rules as other public schools.”

Booker bases his argument on his own life story. His parents struggled with racism and segregation and fought to move into a school district where they could be sure their children would be well educated. He believes charter schools provide an escape from struggling public schools for children whose parents cannot move out of communities where they believe the schools fail to serve their children. For Booker, charter schools are an escape route for families who feel trapped by racism, as his parents did.

It is on one level an appealing argument, which was bluntly articulated when the far-right Thomas Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli argued that charter schools are a solution for poor strivers. Betsy DeVos adopts the same argument for school choice when she says that, because parents know what is best for each of their children, we should provide universal school choice.

However, the essential point to remember about school choice—whether it is a system of private school tuition vouchers or privately operated but publicly funded charter schools—is that school choice privileges the few at the expense of the many.

The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of education. Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school… enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Booker argues for well-regulated and high-performing charter schools. The problem he fails to acknowledge is that charter schools were established beginning in the mid-1990s by state legislatures smitten with the idea of innovation and experimentation. None of these legislatures, to my knowledge, provided adequate oversight of the academic quality of the schools, and none imposed protections to guarantee the stewardship of public tax dollars.  Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Charter schools have now been established by state law across 45 states where stories of outrageous fiscal and academic scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools. Because advocates for school privatization and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector—adequate oversight has proven impossible.

And while some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

In his NY Times column this week, Booker neglects to address perhaps the most worrisome of the problems with charter schools. Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer documents that during the 2016-17 school year, “charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million.” Because none of the states has created a separate funding stream for privatized charter schools or vouchers, the funding always comes out of state and local public school budgets.

In his NY Times column this week, Booker explains that, like many of the other Democratic candidates for President, he opposes for-profit charter schools. But opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit-but-managed-for-profit charter schools were in Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit management company raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Booker wants to have it both ways—to strengthen the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children and at the same time allow charter schools, which he believes can be regulated to serve the public interest. He fails to recognize that nobody yet has figured out how to regulate these schools which were created intentionally without what was said to be the straightjacket of bureaucratic regulation and which are now very often producing outrageous profits for their operators. The idea was to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, but what has emerged is a privatized education sector saturated with out-of-control corruption.

Booker insistently uses the term “public charter schools.”  But charter schools are a form of school privatization. They are an example of private contracting by which a public school district or state approved authorizer contracts with a private nonprofit or for-profit operator to run the school without an elected school board and without the guarantee of transparency. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains why Booker is wrong to imagine that privately operated charter schools can protect the children whose educational opportunity is curtailed by poverty and racism:  “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Booker is right that our society urgently needs to address child poverty itself as well as the overwhelming challenges for the underfunded traditional public schools which serve children in urban communities where racism persists and poverty is concentrated. However, a relatively small privatization scheme to create escapes for a few children cannot be the answer. Public schools are far from perfect.  They are, however, the only institution where our very complex society can balance the needs of each particular student and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of nearly 50 million children and adolescents. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all students. While our society has not realized justice for many children and adolescents in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all of our young people.

An Urgent Issue in Troubled Times: Building the Will to Support Public Education

For this blog, I’ve been tracking the explosion of new vouchers in Ohio, a similar expansion of the cost of school vouchers in Wisconsin, the proposed closure of the storied Collinwood High School by Cleveland’s mayoral-appointed school board, and the protracted negotiations in Lorain, Ohio to get rid of the state’s appointed school district CEO, a man who has brought chaos to the city’s public schools and the entire community. Then, last week, I spent time reviewing the history of corporate, accountability-based school reform as a twelve-year experiment imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, in New York City.  It is all pretty discouraging.  And an added worry is the absence so far of any talk about our public schools, arguably our most important civic institution, in the 2020 Democratic candidates’ debates.

At the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the importance of people like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, experienced career professionals who clearly articulate the institutional norms and goals of international diplomacy. What educator could I feature in this blog, someone who would remind us of the educational policies and institutional norms worth fighting for as a way to protect in our public schools during troubled times?

After an extensive search across shelves of books, I remembered School Reform Fails the Test, an article in which, five years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, examined America’s long journey into corporate, test-and-punish school reform.  Even if you read this article five years ago when it was published in The American Scholar, and even if you’ve read Rose’s inspiring books, I encourage you to read Rose’s article from 2014 again. Rose identifies important norms and practices in our public schools and explains why, in the midst of all the news swirling around us, we must continue to advocate for strengthening our society’s dedication to universal public education as a right we guarantee for all of our young people.

Rose is not naive.  He explains: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.”

Rose suspects that our long, strange, education-reform trip into test and punish accountability may reflect massive and rapid change in our broader society: “School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of our education….”

Here is part of Rose’s analysis of the school reforms that followed, policies which were eventually formalized in the No Child Left Behind Act and which made demands on public schools and school teachers: “A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable….  The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished… An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students.”

But the framers of the law didn’t envision all the consequences which followed, including this one: “The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers… concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience. It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.”

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, a book about several years of research he undertook by visiting public school classrooms.  He reviews the conclusions of that research in the 2014 article: “During the first wave of what would become the 30 year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.  I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools, college professors who taught teachers, parents and community activists who were involved in education….”

What did Rose notice about the characteristics of the excellent classrooms he visited?  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Rose concludes by lifting up the experiences and traditions within public schools themselves—as an alternative to the corporate boardrooms seen by school reformers as the place to seek answers: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?…  Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.

Even if you know the work of Mike Rose and have enjoyed his books, I hope you will read or reread School Reform Fails the Test.  It is a great review of what has gone wrong. It is also hopeful: Rose anchors school improvement in supporting the work of the professionals who have studied good pedagogy and who know the norms and expectations of the institutions where they spend their days with our children. Rose confirms what we’ve watched now for going on two years, as schoolteachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been striking to drive home the urgent need for nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and small classes. To serve  the collective needs of our children, we’ll have to build the public will for investment to overcome our public schools’ greatest challenges.

Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change.  But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.

Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.

In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)

Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country.  During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)

A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools…  The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish.  Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy.  For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….”  (After the Education Wars, p. 76)

Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers).  (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)

School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms.  Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools.  Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students.  What happened to the missing students?  Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)

In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition.  Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”

Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year.  New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally  the school closed.  Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)

In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students.  After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.  The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent.  Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”

Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.”  But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”

Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.

What Does the Slippage in NAEP Reading Scores Mean about our Schools? our Children? our Society?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered the most reliable indicator of trends in American public education. The test is administered to samples of students and is used to track long-range trends.  Nobody reports on the NAEP scores of specific students. Nobody judges schools by comparative scores on NAEP. Nobody evaluates teachers based on their students’ NAEP scores. NAEP has never been part of the accountability scheme imposed by No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch explains what the NAEP is:  “We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP (pronounced ‘nape’).  NAEP is part of the U.S. Department of Education.  It has an independent governing board, called the National Assessment Governing Board.  By statute, the governing board is bipartisan and consists of teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, business people, and members of the general public.”  (Reign of Error, p. 44)

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests and the way testing is distorted when the scores are used for high stakes school accountability (to compare and judge schools and teachers), explains why the NAEP scores are respected as an accurate measure of the overall trends in U.S. public schools: “NAEP… is  considered a very high-quality test. NAEP scores are not susceptible to inflation because teachers aren’t held accountable for scores and therefore have no incentive to engage in NAEP-focused test prep.  And NAEP scores are there for the taking.  In math and reading, NAEP is administered every two years, and the scores are available to anyone on the web.” (The Testing Charade, p. 57)

The most recent NAEP scores were released in late October, for the first time since 2017. For the NY Times, Erica Green and Dana Goldstein describe the results: “America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts…. The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average scores in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states.  Math scores remained relatively flat in most states.”

Of course, the papers have been filled with a lot of hand wringing—blaming the teachers—despairing the decline in our young peoples’ attainment.  Bill Mathis believes all this misses the point.  Mathis served as a design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress. He is currently a member of the Vermont State Board of Education and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.  Mathis recently shared his analysis in a pithy column which first appeared in the Vermont Digger.  He has given me permission to reprint it here:

William J. Mathis: Beat the dead horse harder

The latest round of flagellation of dead horse flesh has been provoked by the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.  After 20 years of overall progress, many of the scores went down.  While all groups improved over the long haul, the gaps between white and other racial groups varied over time but generally remained in place.[i]  Education critics lament and proclaim, “It’s time to get tough! Let’s do some more of what didn’t work!” Meanwhile officials whisper measured words through steepled fingers saying they are “concerned,” that we must do more to ensure our students are well prepared to compete with China and “we have more work to do.” Still others claim that this exercise in numerology is helpful.

Put plainly, standardized tests have no meaningful relationship with economic development and they are poor definers of learning needs. Nevertheless, the NAEP is a valuable outside way of examining trends.

The scores dropped across the nation — which tells us one important thing. The causes are not found in local or state initiatives. Something bigger is at play. Since the scores themselves do not tell us why they are low, we have to look at broad contemporary events and circumstances. This means looking at the research and related social and historical events.

Such is the case with NAEP. The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.[ii]  In this latest release, the biggest drops were among disadvantaged students. Sean Reardon at Stanford has compiled a data base of all school districts in the nation and found that test scores are most affected by this single construct.[iii]

He goes on to note that schools are highly segregated by class and by race. In fact, society is showing signs of resegregating.[iv]  Resolving these gaps is our first threshold issue. High needs children are concentrated in high poverty schools which are, on average, less effective than schools with lower poverty.  In a vicious cycle, poor schools are provided lesser resources. Compounding the problem, the Census Bureau tells us the wealth gap has sharply increased across the nation. Many schools across the nation have not recovered from the 2008 fiscal crisis and the federal government has never provided the promised support for needy children.

Regardless, the schools were mandated to solve the test score problem.  The trouble was that the policymakers got it backwards. Poverty prevents learning.  It is the threshold issue.  Without resorting to what we knew, the dead horse was beaten once more with the No Child Left Behind Act.  We adopted the Common Core curriculum, punished schools, and fired principals and teachers whose misfortune was being assigned to a school with a high concentration of needy children.  It was literally expected that a child from a broken home, hungry and with ADHD would be ready to sit down and learn quadratic equations.  Nevertheless, the test-based school accountability approach emerged and still remains the dominant school philosophy.  While it is claimed that successful applications exist, the research has not been found that says poverty can be overcome by beating the dead horse.  The irony is that the tests themselves show that a test based system is not a successful reform strategy.

Regardless of the dismal results, there is some reason to be optimistic. Policy researchers from across the spectrum agree that test based accountability has not been successful. On one end are Diane Ravitch and David Berliner who point to the lack of support provided to schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute agrees. They further agree that we must attend to social and emotional learning.

We live in troubled times. We face pathological shooters, communal activities are waning, our political establishment is wobbly, and basic economic well-being is threatened. We must certainly prepare the younger generations to be ready for the workforce, and that means keeping a sufficient number of independent measures of academic achievement, geared to the needed skills of society.  Yet, while we teach fundamentals, our most important obligation is to prepare all of our children to enhance the values of our heritage, guided by equality and democracy, as our paramount and universal values.

Thankfully. The public gets it. But it will not be solved by beating a dead horse.

School Closures Threaten to Destroy Neighborhoods, This Time in Cleveland

Right now in Cleveland, Ohio we can watch the latest battle in a war that has spread across the nation’s big city school districts.  It is a fight about the definition of a high school—a misunderstanding between the technocrats who have imposed something called “portfolio school reform” school choice and the families who want their children to have a high school experience in a neighborhood where they feel comfortable.

Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood was defined through much of the twentieth century by the huge New York Central railroad yards. And today’s high school battle in Cleveland is between a mayoral appointed school board and the families, teachers, and community residents who understand a neighborhood high school tradition defined by the football rivalry between the Collinwood Railroaders and the Glenville Tarblooders. Glenville, one of two remaining comprehensive high schools in Cleveland, is the school into which today’s mayoral-appointed board of education is folding Collinwood.

Portfolio School reform was formalized in Cleveland in December of 2012 in a four-year transformation plan that emphasized school choice, innovation, and student-based budgeting. High school in Cleveland is all about school choice—with the money following the students who choose a particular school. Cleveland’s high school choice book advertises small schools featuring specialties:

  • New School Models—early college, international high school, aerospace & maritime, college & career, and environmental studies.
  • Academies—business careers, tech, and environmental studies.
  • New Tech—four schools which are part of a national New Tech Network.
  • Two comprehensive high schools.

Cleveland’s high school choice guide identifies 18 of the high schools across the these categories as innovative. These schools are designated by their specialization: early college, digital arts, architecture & design, science & medicine, the arts, problem based critical thinking, civic & business leadership, engineering, information technology, global studies, science & health, STEM, and leadership. Collinwood High School and the other three New Tech high schools do not make the list of innovative schools. Neither do Glenville and East Tech, the two remaining comprehensive high schools in the Cleveland school district.

Collinwood and Glenville represent very different neighborhoods on the city’s northeast side, the traditionally black side of town.  Both neighborhoods were devastated by the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Today, the students in the Collinwood and Glenville areas are among the city’s poorest.

Portfolio school reform, the essence of the Cleveland Plan, formulates school district management around the idea that schools are like the investments in a stock portfolio. The district imposes student based budgeting, and as students carry their funding to the most popular schools, the district will shut down the losers. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes what Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon recommends as the future of Collinwood High School under portfolio school reform: “Gordon’s plan would close the three-story, 228,000-square-foot building at East 152nd and St. Clair Avenue after 93 years of serving a once-thriving neighborhood.  But enrollment at the school has declined over the years and the school now has about one-tenth of the 3,500 students it had when it opened in 1926.  All of the unused space, with about 300 students remaining, makes it emblematic of a large problem facing the district…  ‘We have all of these extra seats and you can’t make the building shrink to match the community,’ Gordon said at a community meeting this week.”

Residents of Collinwood have been protesting. In an extensive Plain Dealer report, Jordan Heller examines the peer group issues of suddenly mixing students across three high schools—Glenville, MLK, and Collinwood—as Gordon has proposed. Heller raises an issue which has emerged in Chicago when the students in one school have been collapsed into another as he describes the worries of Collinwood football player Velonte Paul and his mother: “But to Paul, his teammates and their parents, it was not a population problem, but a people problem. Collinwood, MLK and Glenville high schools serve many different neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods host many different gangs.  Bringing them together in one building seemed to be ‘not even an option,’ said Paul’s mom… ‘Now you’re meshing kids from Hough, Wade Park, from out of the projects—including a number of gangs like the Heartless Felons—and they already have beef from these neighborhoods.'”

A Cleveland City Council member representing the Collinwood neighborhood has spoken eloquently at recent public hearings.  O’Donnell reports: “City Councilman Mike Polensek asked the district to keep Collinwood High School open, and also give the school the vocational and other innovative programs it has sought for years.  Instead, he said, the district is breaking promises made a few years ago to keep the school open… ‘What is the game plan for the East Side?’ Polensek asked.  ‘Is it more school closures on top of school closures?'”

The members of the school board in Cleveland are split as the district debates the closure of Collinwood.  While most of the board members—all appointed by the mayor—are expected to support the plan presented by the mayor’s appointed CEO, Lisa Thomas has spoken out against the closure based on the fact that, in a school district with universal high school choice, the school district itself has located attractive programs elsewhere, thereby drawing students away from Collinwood, whose programs have languished.  In a recent report, O’Donnell describes Thomas’s concerns: “For board member Lisa Thomas, closing the mammoth but almost-empty school would amount to the district giving up on the neighborhood at Cleveland’s northeast corner. Too many businesses and other institutions have abandoned that neighborhood, she said, and left ‘gaping holes’ in a once-strong community.  ‘We didn’t start the fire, but we’ve got to put it out… If we close Collinwood High School, we are part of the problem.'”

There is now a body of academic research examining the effect on the community when schools are closed.  In Chicago, after Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students.  Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The school board will meet at 6:30 p.m., Tues., Nov. 19, at East Technical High School, 2439 E. 55th St., to vote on the school consolidation plan. The meeting is open to the public with time for comments.”

Kentucky’s New Governor Andy Beshear Prioritizes Funding Public Schools, Strengthening State Pensions, and Protecting Medicaid Eligibility

On Tuesday night, Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was elected governor of Kentucky.  By a slim 5,100 vote margin, which may be challenged in Kentucky’s version of a recount, Beshear defeated the state’s current governor, Republican, Matt Bevin.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made this race a priority and spent considerable time in Kentucky rallying Bevin’s supporters in the final weeks of the campaign.  And Politico reports that the President’s 2020 campaign operation invested in an extensive get-out-the-vote effort across the state to ensure a Bevin victory. But it didn’t work.

Governor Elect Andy Beshear chose a public school principal, Jacqueline Coleman, as his running mate. He won on a platform for the common good, which features raising funding for public schools and school teachers, stabilizing the state pension fund, and eliminating restrictions on Medicaid eligibility.

Kentucky’s teachers marched on the state capitol in Frankfort in April 2018, as part of the beginning of the RedforEd wave, which has brought the nation’s attention to what have become outrageously large classes and shortages of counselors, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, and librarians as states failed to recover from the 2008 recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities names Kentucky as one of a dozen states where, by 2019, state school formula funding remains 13 percent below where it was in 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

In early October, Andy Beshear released an education plan to increase the state’s funding for schools. The Louisville Courier Journal reported: “A main feature of the Democrats’ plan is supporting an ‘education first budget’ that increases the state’s portion of SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding and increases overall per-pupil funding.  While per-pupil funding has increased under Bevin, Beshear said the total remains 13% lower than before the 2008 recession…. The Beshear campaign’s plan also calls for reducing class sizes, increasing the number of school nurses, adding mental health services, helping local governments with school infrastructure and supplies, and expanding early childhood education. It repeats his pledge from a month earlier to raise all teachers’ salaries by $2,000 in order to address a shortage of educators… Beshear also highlighted past statements by Bevin that harshly criticized teachers protesting pension legislation supported by the governor, saying they’ve been ‘bullied’ and ‘called names.'”

On Monday of this week, Bloomberg reported on the divisive fight over the state pension fund: “Last year, thousands of Kentucky teachers staged a walkout and rallied against proposed cuts to their retirement benefits by Republican Governor Matt Bevin…. The tight (gubernatorial) race between Bevin and… Andy Beshear could have big implications in a state with one of the worst-funded public employee retirement systems in the U.S.  Kentucky’s efforts to rein in a $45 billion pension burden have been complicated by constitutional limits on cuts to benefits and lawmakers’ resistance to raising taxes…. State officials in Kentucky underfunded the pension system for years….”

Andy Beshear, then Kentucky’s attorney general, became a hero for the state’s public school teachers when, in 2018, Governor Bevin rushed through the legislature a controversial new pension plan that would have penalized teachers.  The Lexington Herald Leader reported: “The law places teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2019, in a hybrid cash-balance plan, which is similar to a 401(k), rather than a traditional pension, and requires those teachers to work longer before becoming eligible for retirement…  State employees hired between 2003 and 2008 also are required to pay 1 percent more for health care.”  Then Attorney General Andy Beshear joined with teachers and police unions to file a legal challenge to Bevin’s new law. And in June of 2018, a Franklin County judge declared the law unconstitutional based on the skirting of required legislative procedure during its passage. The night before this week’s election, the PBS NewsHour covered the Kentucky governor’s race and featured public school teachers canvassing door-to-door on behalf of Andy Beshear’s election.

Besides underfunding public education and seeking to reduce pension benefits—a move that would have made it harder for Kentucky to attract public school teachers, Governor Bevin made Kentucky the first state imposing work requirements on Medicaid. The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann reports: “Because of personal and intensive lobbying by Bevin, Kentucky became the first state in the country last year to receive federal permission to require that poor residents either hold a job, participate in a job training program or volunteer in their community to retain their health insurance coverage. Bevin’s own administration forecasts that the work requirements, if they go into effect, could result in as many as 95,000 of the 400,000 Kentuckians currently on Medicaid being dropped from the rolls.”

Bevin’s tough guy stance has ignored the lack of jobs in some places and people’s inability to maintain enough hours in unstable part time jobs. Neither has Governor Bevin acknowledged the impact on children when their parents lose Medicaid.  Hohmann quotes Bevin’s bizarre critique of Andy Beshear’s support for opposing work requirements in the Medicaid program: “I didn’t have it (insurance) until I was in my 20s when I was a military officer… I’m the only one who’s ever lost coverage in recent years for preexisting conditions. Me and my entire family had no health-care coverage for a year-and-a-half because of preexisting conditions.”  About Andy Beshear, Bevin continues: “He says, ‘I’m the hero for people with no health-care coverage.’  He’s never been there. I have…. So he’s a phony. He’s an absolute fraud.'”

Bevin’s plan to add work requirements to Medicaid was challenged in court and blocked by a federal judge.  Hohmann reports Bevin predicted he would lose on Medicaid work requirements in a court of appeals, but Hohmann adds “If he gets reelected, he’ll appeal to the Supreme Court.”

Bevin was not, however, reelected on Tuesday. Instead, Governor Andy Beshear will have an opportunity to try to restore to Kentucky some of what has been lost as conditions have deteriorated in the public schools, as pension battles have driven potential teachers away from the state, and as Governor Matt Bevin has attempted to justify the denial of health insurance to Kentucky’s poorest families. Last year, the Lexington Herald Leader reported that, in April of 2018, an all-Republican, Kentucky Legislature—more attentive to the state’s needs than Governor Bevin himself—overrode Governor Bevin’s veto of a state budget intended to raise “several hundred million dollars in new revenue” and to support “pension relief to local governments.”  We must wish Governor Andy Beshear well as he tries to build continued legislative support for an agenda to reconstruct the public good in Kentucky.

EdChoice Voucher Expansion in Ohio Creates a New Kind of School Funding Inequity

Steve Dyer’s new Innovation Ohio report on Ohio’s FY 2020-20121 state budget begins: “When Governor Mike DeWine signed HB 166 into law, he approved a budget that lawmakers had packed full of little-noticed gifts to those who seek to erode support for traditional public schools through a proliferation of charter and private school options funded at taxpayer expense.” He continues: “This is just the latest in a series of expansions of vouchers in Ohio law. The state has been on the front lines of the private school voucher fight for two decades.”

One of the ways vouchers were expanded in this budget is that, while in the past, all students except those entering Kindergarten must have been enrolled during the previous school year in the public school district from which the student seeks to carry away a voucher to a private or religious school, the new budget bill erodes this protection for public schools. The Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) explains: “Generally, students wishing to claim a voucher under the original EdChoice voucher program must have attended a public school in the previous school year. However, HB 166 codifies in law… (that) students going into grades 9-12 need not first attend a public school. In other words, high school students already attending a private school can obtain a voucher.” This change in state law means that Ohio’s public school districts will now be subsidizing the education of many students, primarily those in religious schools, who have never intended to use the public schools.

But the implications of the new state budget voucher expansion are not merely because a new group of students will be awarded vouchers. A new white paper ( Executive Summary or Full Report), released this month by the Heights Coalition for Public Education and written by the Ohio Federation of Teachers’ Darold Johnson and the Heights Coalition’s Susan Kaeser and Ari Klein, digs deeper by exploring new, and very inequitable fiscal implications across Ohio’s 610 school districts of the new budget’s expansion of vouchers.

In its new report, the Heights Coalition explains how Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs are funded: “The most recent program, EdChoice Expansion, is funded directly by the state as a line item in the state budget. The Jon Peterson, Autism, and EdChoice programs are funded by the deduction method. The deduction method counts voucher students as if they are enrolled in the district where they reside. They generate the same amount of state funding for their district of residence as do public school students. The cost of each voucher is transferred from that district’s state funds to the private education provider.”  According to the Ohio Department of Education: “The EdChoice scholarship amount is currently $4,650 for grades K-8 and $6,000 for grades 9-12.”(Emphasis is mine.)

To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of one of Ohio’s “EdChoice designated schools.”  Public schools whose attendance zones qualify for EdChoice vouchers are identified by a complicated state performance index based largely on the school’s aggregate standardized test scores. Last January, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that in the 2018-19 school year, 218 schools had been identified where students could qualify for an EdChoice voucher. O’Donnell explains that beginning in September of 2019, “that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475.”  And the Ohio Department of Education recently designated hundreds of additional schools where students will qualify for EdChoice vouchers next school year in 2020-2021.

But there is a hitch that makes the impact of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers inequitable.  Some school districts don’t receive as much per pupil funding from the state as the per-pupil voucher amount deducted from the school district’s budget when a student takes the voucher to a private or religious school. The Heights Coalition explains how some school districts are harder hit than others by the cost of EdChoice vouchers: “Because state funding is driven by property wealth, high wealth districts receive less state support per pupil, and districts with low wealth receive more.  High wealth districts receive less funding per student, so more of the cost of a voucher is unfunded compared to low wealth districts.”

However, a problem arises because a number of so-called high wealth districts are deemed “high wealth” merely because they are located in metropolitan counties where property valuations are higher in general. These are not school districts filled with million dollar mansions; neither do they serve masses of wealthy children. Some of them have large populations of very poor children with high needs.  Because these districts receive less state aid per pupil than a school voucher is worth, vouchers cost such school districts relatively more than the same vouchers cost other school districts. The Heights Coalition continues: “High wealth districts receive less funding per student, so more of the cost of a voucher is unfunded compared to low wealth districts.”

It immediately becomes clear why the Heights Coalition is exploring this issue: “In FY 2019, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH) School District enrolled 5,111 students of whom 81% are considered to be economically disadvantaged… The CH-UH district is one of only 9 high wealth and high poverty (50% or more of students are economically disadvantaged) districts in Ohio.  It has a disproportionately high number of vouchers compared to its enrollment and compared to most districts.  Additionally CH-UH receives a moderate amount of state funding. In FY 2019, the CH-UH district transferred $7.36 million of its state funding to nonpublic schools for 1,132 voucher students.  This was 34.6% of its state aid, up from just 7% three years earlier. This is the second  largest share of any district in Ohio.”

In actuality, the problem is worse in the current 2019-2020 school year year because state funding for CH-UH is capped in the new state budget. The district’s state funding is frozen at last year’s level, but 600 new vouchers are being deducted from CH-UH this school year, with only 25 of them for students who were previously enrolled in the district. That means that the CH-UH district will not receive any additional state funding this year to cover the new vouchers being carried out of the district’s budget to private and religious schools. In its new report, the Heights Coalition explains: “At a minimum, the unfunded cost of vouchers for FY 2020 will be… an increase of $2.92 million in one year. This is not sustainable.”

The Heights Coalition continues: “When state funds shrink, districts have two options: cut expenses or raise more money by seeking voter approval for an increase in local property taxes. The loss of funds to vouchers has become so costly that during FY 2020, the CH-UH district will turn to voters to solve the budget shortfall. The community already taxes itself at one of the highest rates in the state. Voters who do not support the use of public funds to pay for religious education will balk at approving a levy that is needed to fill a deficit created by state-imposed voucher costs.”

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) provided data for the Heights Coalition report. LSC confirms that 31 Ohio school districts transferred 10 percent or more of their state aid to private schools for vouchers in 2019.  Greater Cleveland is especially affected with roughly half—15 of Cuyahoga County’s 31 school districts— losing at least 10 percent of their state aid to vouchers. The Heights Coalition explains: “The cost of a voucher is set by the legislature and is the same in every school district.  But the state funding per pupil varies by district. This means the impact on public school students will be different depending on voucher use and per pupil (state) funding.”

The Heights Coalition proposes that in the short term, compensatory state aid be provided to school districts which lose more than 10 percent of their state revenue to voucher deductions: “Allocate additional state funds to districts where unfunded voucher costs… are greater than 10 % of that district’s state aid.”

The Heights Coalition suggests the legislature also adopt the longer-term solution that is already part of the proposed Cupp-Patterson School Funding proposal: “End the deduction method for funding vouchers.”  EdChoice voucher students should not initially be counted as though enrolled in their local school district, and the cost of their voucher would not then be deducted from the school district’s budget. These students should simply have their voucher awarded directly by the state out of a line item appropriated in the state budget.  This is, by the way, the way Ohio already funds another of its voucher programs—EdChoice Expansion.