Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education Discloses All Major Donors

In a January profile of Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for President, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post described Bush—who launched his own Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2008 after he completed two terms as Florida’s governor from 1999-2007—as a promoter of school “reform,” a disruptor, and a privatizer: “issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test… encouraging online and virtual schools.”  Layton quotes Jeb’s goals in his own words: “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”  Jeb resigned from the foundation at the end of 2014 in preparation for his Presidential candidacy.

While the Foundation for Excellence in Education has actively engaged in advocacy, it is a dark-money, not-for-profit, charitable organization that purportedly provides issues education but not lobbying and that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors.  On Wednesday afternoon of this week, the Foundation for Excellence in Education disclosed to the Associated Press the names of all donors who had given more than $5,000 before the end of 2014. The AP reporters, Ronnie Greene and Steve Peoples, who broke the story, describe the disclosure as “part of a larger effort by Bush’s campaign to highlight transparency.”  Previously the foundation had revealed names of donors only from 2012-2014.

The AP reporters comment: “Big-time donors to a nonprofit educational group founded by Jeb Bush, disclosed for the first time Wednesday, highlight the intersection between Bush’s roles in the worlds of business, policy and politics years before he began running for president…  That donor list shows the circular connections as Bush moved from governor to education advocate to corporate board member.  Supporters in each of those stages of his career contributed to his educational foundation—which, in turn, sometimes supported causes benefiting its donors.  They include Rupert Murdoch’s media giant News Corp., GOP mega-donor Paul Singer’s foundation, energy companies such as Exxon Mobil, even the Florida Lottery.”  Officials at the Florida Lottery explained that, while the Lottery cannot legally make charitable donations, it did underwrite six conferences of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (worth $82,500) “to help raise awareness of the lottery’s contributions to education.”

One of the committees of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Chiefs for Change—a group of conservative state superintendents of public instruction—has actively promoted on-line education and particular products of education publishing and technology companies in the states where these officials were serving as state chiefs.  In some instances members of Chiefs for Change have served as endorsers for such products among their colleagues in other states.  Ed O’Keefe, a reporter who also picked up this story on Wednesday in the Washington Post,  adds that, “The Foundation for Excellence in Education… has mixed politics and policy by drafting education reform legislation, paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts.”  (Chiefs for Change separated from the Foundation for Excellence in Education earlier this year to become an independent organization.)

According to the AP report, Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor and a leader who has actively promoted such practices as closing so-called failing schools, opening charter schools, and evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, has been a major contributor: “Four companies and nonprofits that appointed Bush to their boards of directors or advisory boards backed the education foundation.  One, Bloomberg Philanthropies, was among the most frequent supporters, making seven donations worth between $1.2 milliaon to $2.4 million.  Bush served on Bloomberg’s board from 2010-2014.”

The AP reporters explain that the Foundation for Excellence in Education has also made strategic grants that seem to have helped secure contracts for friends of the foundation: “Bush’s education nonprofit provided $1.1 million in public information grants to eight states in 2013…. In recent years, at least nine charter schools and education-related donors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education won contracts in those eight states, revealing the mirrored missions of donors and the foundation.”

The foundation, according to the AP report, received grants from philanthropies and businesses known to be among America’s prominent backers of the privatization of education: the Walton Family Foundation, Wal-Mart Stores, Wal-Mart Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the News Corp., and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Corporate support for the foundation seems to have been viewed as a marketing strategy.  O’Keefe at the Washington Post reports: “A large number of contributions came from for-profit education companies, including Apex Learning; Pearson; Charter Schools USA; VSSCHOOLZ; News Corp.; Microsoft; Intel; and K12, Inc.  Of these companies, News Corp.—which has digital education properties—was most generous, giving six-figure sums in at least three years.”

The AP reporters note, perhaps with some humor: “While Hillary Clinton played a leading role in an organization that accepted millions of dollars from foreign entities, Bush’s group accepted money from just one international source: British-based Pearson PLC….”  Pearson is well known as one the three biggest education publishers that sell books, tests and technology to school districts across the United States.  It is the producer, grader, and data processor of the on-line tests being administered by the Common Core PAARC Consortium.  Pearson also competes across the states to provide the standardized tests that states are required to administer annually under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.  It also markets curricula and textbooks aligned with the tests it produces.

This blog has covered the history of Jeb Bush’s involvement with education policy here and here.

Ohio’s Budget Severs Ties with PAARC Testing Consortium

Lots of states completed work on their budgets this week, because in many places the budget for next year, or sometimes for two years, has to be in place by June 30.  Is the budget language too arcane—too far in the weeds—for you?  I recommend reading about your state budget for a peek into how your legislators understand public education.

Ohio’s budget, just signed at the last minute on Tuesday night is an example.  Ohio dealt with the Common Core standards, sort of, in the state budget.  At least our legislature prescribed that we are changing test providers.  Here is how Patrick O’Donnell describes the budget action for the Plain Dealer: “Ohio became the latest state to pull out of the PARCC Common Core testing consortium tonight after months of angry complaints about the new online tests having too many technology glitches and of eating up far too much learning time for students… The compromise bill the two houses agreed upon… specifically bans the state from spending any money on tests from the 12-state consortium—now down to 11 after tonight—and calls for the Ohio Department of Education to immediately find a new provider of tests. Ohio spent $26 million for PARCC to provide math and English exams, both online and on paper, this past school year….”

The legislature and governor of Ohio heard the public outcry even if the fix they are providing avoids the deeper issues.  While Ohio is not getting rid of the Common Core and isn’t getting rid of standardized testing, it is changing providers.  O’Donnell suggests that Ohio is likely to move to tests designed by the American Institutes of Research, the current provider of exams in science and social studies that the state has been administering on top of  the PARCC tests.

It is hard to know quite what this means for the Common Core or for Common Core tests.  It isn’t a good development for the consortium of states that, O’Donnell explains, partnered to develop the PARCC tests, and which, in 2011, included Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.  The following states remain in the PARCC test consortium: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.  New York is described as using PARCC, “in a far more limited way.”  The PAARC website itself explains that New York did not use PARCC in the 2014-2015 school year.

Chair of the education committee in the Ohio Senate, Petty Lehner, told Caitlin Emma of Politico Morning Education, “that the decision to leave PARCC came down to the backlash against it, with teachers concerned about the use of test scores in hiring and firing decisions, the length of the test and the Common Core standards themselves.”  Apparently in the Ohio legislature it is believed that the issues of overuse of testing for evaluating and hiring and firing teachers and the value of the Common Core Standards can be addressed by changing test providers.

In Ohio, the governor has a line item veto, and although Kasich didn’t veto Ohio’s exit from the PAARC consortium, his line-item veto of other measures will be very significant for the 610 public school districts across Ohio.

Kasich vetoed a longtime state reimbursement to local school districts to replace a local tax on inventory and equipment that the state summarily eliminated several years ago. This cut will apply only in the second year of the biennium.  Hannah Sparling reports for the Cincinnati Enquirer that Kasich also vetoed at least part of a hold-harmless school funding guarantee that prevents a school district’s state aid from falling below last year’s level.  The governor, Sparling explains, “trimmed the state education budget by $78 million Tuesday night, scrapping payments meant to reimburse school districts for the now-defunct tangible personal property tax.. and eliminating the so-called funding guarantee that would have ensured no district would lose state funding during the next two years.”  We will have to wait to learn how particular school districts are affected—whether funding cuts will impact only districts with significant capacity to replace state funding with local tax dollars (as the governor predicts) or whether they will further devastate needy districts.  The Columbus Dispatch had reported—before the Governor’s line-item veto imposed education funding cuts—that the legislature had planned to ensure that overall, 429 of Ohio’s 610 school districts would receive more state money over the next two years, while the rest would essentially be flat-funded.”

Stephen Dyer, former member of the Ohio House and former reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, notes in his blog that “(D)istricts still are getting less in this budget than they did five years ago, adjusted for inflation. And that budget was developed at the height of the Great Recession.” At the same time the legislature just budgeted using money from the education fund to support a private organization—Teach for America, $4 million over two years, “to increase recruitment of potential corps members at select Ohio universities, train and develop first-year and second-year teachers in the Teach for America program in Ohio, and expand alumni support and networking within the state.”

Ohio Charter Regulation Goes On Life Support, Will Likely Die

Benjamin Barber is a political philosopher, and his observations are usually pretty abstract, which is why is it so fascinating to observe what his words mean in the real life drama of everyday politics—a drama that turned to tragedy this week in the Ohio legislature as the bill to regulate charter schools and their sponsor-authorizers collapsed and went on life support, though it hasn’t quite died.

Consider Barber’s reflection on the way privatization undermines the common good: “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…. 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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Here is what happened earlier this week as Ohio’s public governing body left on break before reigning in the for-profit, privatized charter management sector, according to Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter: “The Ohio House will head off on summer break without voting on the new accountability and financial reporting rules for Ohio’s $1 billion charter school industry that have been in the works for months.  House leaders skipped a vote on the package late last week and have left it off the schedule for Tuesday, the last session before leaving for recess.  Brittany Warner, spokesperson for Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, confirmed today that there will be no vote before break… Warner said that leaders want more time to study some of the changes and that differences between the House and Senate versions should be sorted out in a conference between leaders of both houses.” O’Donnell concludes: “Republican leaders say the delay is to clear up some issues with the just-revised bill.  Others call it an attempt to buy time to water down the bill to please charter school operators who donate to Republican candidates.”

Here is the meaning of the delay, according to an e-mail on Monday afternoon from Stephen Dyer, former member of the Ohio House and former reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal:  “It looks like the Ohio House won’t take up the charter reform package that cleared the Ohio Senate last week before the end of business tomorrow (Tuesday).  So now, it’s being slow walked, which means at best we wait until mid-July…. We know that the powerful Ohio poor performing charter operator lobby would love for both chambers to bog this bill down so nothing changes.”

The Plain Dealer’s report quotes the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. Teresa Fedor, who is more blunt: “They never will call a vote, which means the tax dollars will continue on the ripoff train.”

Charter schools have always been conceptualized, to use Benjamin Barber’s language, around “the lure of private liberty and particular interest.”  They were designed to be free of the regulations (described as the constraints of bureaucracy) that, some believe, limit innovation in the traditional public schools that are held to particular standards and required to provide sufficient and appropriate services for all kinds of children.  The idea was to free up charters, and Ohio did just that, so much so that even charter advocacy organizations have condemned the academic malpractice and financial malfeasance that have been documented again and again.

Last December the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study of the academic effectiveness of Ohio’s charters (as measured by standardized test scores). CREDO has been a charter supporter, but its Ohio report is scathing: “First, recent efforts across Ohio to improve the quality of charter school performance are only dimly discernible in the analysis.  Overall performance trends are marginally positive, but the gains that Ohio charter school students receive even in the most recent periods studied still lag the progress of their traditional public school peers… Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state.  If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time.”  “Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school, the analysis shows on average that the students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”

Margaret Raymond, director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), followed up by coming to speak  at the Cleveland City Club, where she announced that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The legislation that the Ohio House declined to vote on this week was already so watered down that it would have addressed only a few of the most serious academic and financial problems across Ohio’s charter sector.  Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch explains that last week the Senate did add provisions to strengthen transparency and oversight: “Key Senate additions… include giving the Department of Education more effective authority to oversee charter school sponsors, more transparency of operator spending, and a stronger provision aimed at preventing sponsor hopping, where a poor-performing school quickly seeks to re-open under a new sponsor to avoid being closed… The bill also seeks to improve the way the state evaluates charter sponsors, nix the potential conflicts of interest that exist between schools and sponsors, and provide more assurance that sponsors are actually spending state money on their school oversight role.  New additions also would require online e-schools to keep more accurate attendance records, implement annual sponsor ratings with consequences for low scores, and establish stronger contracts between the state and the sponsors.”

Here, however, is some of what Ohio’s legislature entirely neglected to address—even in the proposed legislation that has now been hopelessly delayed.  Doug Livingston, in the Akron Beacon Journal, reported last week that the state, “has removed all test scores for online and computer-based dropout recovery high schools when grading sponsors.  These are the lowest-performing types of charter schools… Though there are only 24 online schools among the more than 380 charter schools in Ohio, they receive nearly one in three state dollars set aside for charter schools, or $267 million… The two largest—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and Ohio Virtual Academy—received $185 million in state funding… Two are run by influential for-profit companies: White Hat Management, which operates Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan; and Altair Learning, which operates ECOT and is owned by Bill Lager.  Brennan and Lager have given more than $1.4 million in political contributions to state lawmakers since 2009…. In addition to his online school, Brennan’s Life Skills dropout recovery schools also are not included—at least this year—in sponsor ratings.”

It is worth noting that Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder—when he was term-limited out in January of this year and revolved directly into a lobbying job—took on a very powerful and influential client: William Lager and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Ohio is the exemplar of Benjamin Barber’s critique: “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…. 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….”

America Tries to Fix Achievement Gaps on the Cheap without Addressing Opportunity Gaps

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the research literature) that schools themselves do not cause achievement gaps and that schools by themselves cannot close achievement gaps.  But we prefer to believe something else.

We blame schools when they don’t close the gaps quickly. We close the schools or fire their principals and teachers.  Or we create state “achievement” districts with distant overseer superintendents who monitor test scores.  Or our states create emergency managers with absolute power to override union contracts and fire entire school staffs if they like.  Or, for so-called “efficiency,” we turn the schools over to private management companies.  Cause and effect logic doesn’t operate much in the realm of school “reform.”

Today, this blog will review the evidence about the root causes of school achievement gaps and then look at the new study released this month from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. about the achievement gap in place across America long before children enter Kindergarten.

Back in 1999, well before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that set out to close achievement gaps through test-based accountability, Helen Ladd and colleagues writing a school finance book for the National Research Council declared, “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention.” (Making Money Matter, p. 47)

Ten years later, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focuses on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm.  They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480.  They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present.  The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In 2013, here is what the historian Michael Katz and the professor of education Mike Rose concluded at the end of a book of academic essays about the current wave of school reform: “(A) rough consensus which crosses political lines blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores.  In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains…. Powerful foundations, the national government, and the media… reinforce and disseminate these views.  The reform agenda includes two primary components: first, hold teachers accountable for student achievement… and second, break up public monopolies by introducing choice, mainly in the form of charter schools…. The fact of the matter is that the ‘problem’ of American eduction is to a large extent a problem of poverty. By international standards, American students who attend schools where only a small percentage of students come from families with income below the poverty line measure up well against the best in the world.” (Public Education Under Siege, pp. 223-224)

And in 2013, Diane Ravitch summarized the dilemma: “Still the question remains: Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix schools first?  It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty.  Or maybe they mean that fixing schools will take care of poverty.  The reformers’ case is superficially appealing.  It ought to be easier to ‘fix’ schools than to ‘fix’ poverty, because poverty seems so intractable.  Our society has grown to accept poverty as an inevitable fact of life and there seems to be little or no political will to do anything about it.  It should also be cheaper to fix schools instead of poverty, because no matter how much it costs to fix schools, it will surely be less than the cost of significantly reducing poverty in a society with great economic inequality like our own.  The problem is that if you don’t really know how to fix schools, if none of your solutions actually improve education, then society ends up neither fixing schools nor doing anything about poverty.”  (Reign of Error, pp 92-93)

In this context, Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute just published research that documents Inequalities at the Starting Gate, sizeable achievement gaps relating to income inequality that are well established before children enter Kindergarten.

Here is Garcia’s conclusion:  “Gaps based on socioeconomic status are very significant and prevalent, while those based on race/ethnicity are largely sensitive to the inclusion of socioeconomic status…  These findings indicate that inequalities at the starting gate are largely the result of accumulated social and economic disadvantages; that socioeconomic status or social class, is the single largest predictor of early education gaps and that gaps based on race are primarily a result of the many factors for which race mediates and that minority groups disproportionately experience.”

Garcia presents the demographic data that describes the children entering Kindergarten today: “Over half (52 percent) of white children are in the two highest socioeconomic quintiles (high-middle or high), while only 8.9 percent fall into the lowest SES quintile.  A similar pattern is true among Asian kindergartners: 59.9 percent are in the highest two quintiles, and 11.8 percent are in the lowest.  For black and especially for Hispanic children, however, the situation is reversed.  Over half (56.8 percent) of black children and over two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Hispanic children are in the two lowest quintiles, and fewer than one in 10 of either group are in the highest SES quintile (8.3 percent of black children and 6.8 percent of Hispanic children).  Another angle through which to see these numbers is the proportion of children who live in povery by race/ethnicity: 13.1 percent of white children, 17.3 percent of Asian children, and nearly half of black children (45.5 percent) and Hispanic children (46.3 percent).”

Garcia writes: “Overall, our results—showing significant socioeconomic-based gaps in cognative skills—confirm what multiple other research analyses (e.g. Reardon 2011) have found: that students’ levels of readiness and development are closely associated with their parents’ socioeconomic status.  Unadjusted differences in cognitive domains indicate that each move up a socioeconomic quintile in the SES distribution is associated with approximately a quarter of a standard deviation… improvement in performance in both math and reading, with students in the top quintile… scoring nearly a full standard deviation above students in the bottom quintile….”

Garcia attributes these results to the challenges experienced by children living in the lowest SES quintile and the enrichments being showered upon children in the top quintiles as inequality widens and affluent children are exposed to added travel and other programs and lessons.  Robert Putnam agrees. In his new book on the impact of rising inequality on children’s opportunity, Putnam describes the investments of middle and upper class parents in child-rearing: “Concerted cultivation refers to the child rearing investments that middle-class parents deliberately make to foster their children’s cognitive, social, and cultural skills, and, in turn, to further their children’s success in life, particularly at school…  Parents from all social backgrounds nowadays invest more money and more time in raising their kids than was true a generation ago…. but because affluent, educated families have not only more money but also more time… they have been able to increase their investments much faster than poor parents…. As a result, the class gap in investments in kids has become wider and wider.” (Our Kids, pp. 118-124)

Emma Garcia concludes her new report with suggestions about closing the opportunity gaps that exist long before children reach Kindergarten.  She absolutely endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straighforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

Ohio Fast-Tracks Emergency Manager for Youngstown Schools and More Districts in Future

The headline on Doug Livingston’s piece in the Akron Beacon Journal, says it all: Ohio Lawmakers Scrap Elected School Boards and Union Contracts, Usher In Private Control After Barring Opposition Testimony.

Livingston explains: “The bill began innocuously in the House as an effort to help communities turn schools into comprehensive learning centers for the neighborhood. The bill passed from the House to the Senate a month ago with an overwhelming 92-6 vote.” The bill was originally designed to encourage the creation of what are in most states called “community schools,” but in Ohio (which calls all charter schools “community schools,”) such schools are called “community learning centers” with wrap around community services provided for families right in the school building—enhancements like health clinics, dental clinics, child care programs.  Here is the descriptive language in the bill’s summary as penned by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission—before the bill was amended: “Authorizes school districts and community schools to transition any of their school buildings into a community learning center to participate in a coordinated, community-based effort with community partners to provide comprehensive educational, developmental, family, and health services to students, families, and community members.”

Then last Wednesday, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.  There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill.

Livingston reports that Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, had arrived in the Senate committee room to testify in favor of the bill promoting community learning centers.  When she was informed that Lehner would be amending the bill under discussion with a plan to take over Youngstown’s public schools, Cropper tried to address that issue in her testimony, but was informed that she could not speak to the amendment, which had not yet been offered. After Cropper sat down, the amendment was introduced, and, according to Livingston, “four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony”—Youngstown State University president Jim Tressell; Bishop George Murry of the Youngstown Diocese; Thomas Humphries president of the Chamber of Commerce; and the current superintendent, Connie Hathorn, the man who has failed to improve test scores in the district and who has agreed to leave for a new job in Arkansas at month’s end.

The new plan will affect Youngstown now, but in the future it will affect any school district that receives an “F” rating for three consecutive years.  Once a district has three annual ratings of “F”, it can, according to Livingston, “be taken over by a state academic distress commission, which consists of three members appointed by the state superintendent, another by the local mayor, and a teacher selected by the local school board president.  The commission then hires a CEO, who doesn’t have to be an educator but must have ‘high-level management experience.’  The CEO is paid up to $150,000 directly by the Ohio Department of Education.  The academic distress commission also can hire an ‘independent entity’—possibly a for-profit company—to oversee and promote local charter schools.  The state’s private voucher program also opens up to any student who would otherwise attend the academically distressed school district, regardless of how well the nearest school building in that system performs.  Schools can get out of academic distress if they earn a C grade on the report card and no more Fs in the next two years. Though overall grades aren’t out yet, 59 percent of all grades given last year to Ohio’s eight largest and poorest urban school districts were Fs.”

Why Youngstown first?  Livingston explains: “The discussion centered on Youngstown, which has been guided by an academic distress commission since 2010… Lorain, the other Ohio school district in academic distress, must perform poorly another  two years before it falls under the new provision…. Youngstown has the highest poverty rate among Ohio’s 10 major cities and it is eighth in the nation for poverty among more than 550 ranked cities.”

Stephen Dyer, former Ohio House member and former reporter for the Beacon Journal, explains exactly how this is likely to play out—first in Youngstown and then across Ohio’s urban districts that include Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lorain, Toledo and Akron: “(H)ere’s the thing. Only when the district gets an overall C grade on the state report card will the district even start to get out of this academic distress thing.  So, essentially, we are creating a city-wide, more or less permanent dictatorship in Youngstown.  Why do I say this is permanent?  Because all the grades on the state report card are based on test scores, which are nearly perfectly correlated with a district’s poverty rate.  So Youngstown, with its nearly 100% poverty rate has almost zero chance of ever getting out from under this dictator’s thumb.  We’ve seen how dreadful this situation has worked in Michigan.”

So, how have Michigan’s school district emergency managers worked out?  Here are two examples.  In Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, the governor appointed emergency managers in 2012.  In Muskegon Heights, the emergency manager hired Mosaica Schools, a for-profit Charter Management Organization to run the district.  In April 2014, Mosaica and Muskegon Heights’s emergency manager agreed to terminate the contract because the company, a for-profit corporation, lost money instead of turning a profit. Then just this month, Highland Park’s emergency manager reached an agreement to shorten by a year what had been a five-year contract with the Leona Group, also a for-profit Charter Management Organization.  The Leona Group closed Highland Park’s  only high school at the end of the current school year, and has agreed to conclude its contract with Highland Park after the upcoming school year and for a far lower fee.  It was to have been paid $780,000 per year, and will collect only $150,000 for the school year just ended.

People in Youngstown were stunned by the news of the rushed and secret state legislation to take over their schools.  School board president Brenda Kimble is quoted in the Youngstown Vindicator: “We’re going to band together as a community.  We’re not going to just let this happen. They didn’t consult anybody in the city, any of the elected officials including, as far as I know, any of city council or the unions.”

No Democrat in either chamber of Ohio’s legislature voted for the bill. Youngstown’s legislative representatives all voted against the bill.  State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan has posted a statement on her website: “Fast-tracking a takeover of Youngstown City Schools prevents our community from coming together in a constructive way to chart a course for our children to succeed.  Frustration in the Mahoning Valley cannot and should not be replaced by what could amount to a power grab from Columbus outsiders… From the first day I took office, I expressed concerns that Columbus would try to shut down Youngstown schools and centralize power with an unaccountable and less transparent governing structure that moves children to failing, for-profit charter schools.  I took the governor at his word that this would not be the case, but here we are today faced with what appears to be exactly that.”

State Funding for Public Colleges and Universities: Tax and Budget Cuts Reinforce Inequality

In many states, the budget for next year or for a two-year biennium will be decided in just a few days—the end of June.  As your legislators wrap up their wrangling about the budget, consider these facts about the condition of funding for public colleges and universities that the the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)  presented last month. I urge you to look at the data on each of the 50 states in the CBPP’s report as a benchmark for evaluating whether your state will be reversing or perpetuating some pretty scary trends:

  • “Forty-seven states—all except Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2014-15 school year than they did at the start of this recession.
  • “The average state is spending $1,805, or 20 percent less, per student than it did in the 2007-2008 school year.
  • “Per-student funding in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina is down by more than 35 percent since the start of the recession.
  • “In 13 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these three states—Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—have cut per-student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”

This past year many states did raise their investment in their colleges and universities (and in California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a budget that continues to raise expenditures, though there is a long way to go).  And yet, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that some states are actively considering further cuts to higher education spending in their current budget negotiations: “Tax cuts are often sold as a recipe for economic growth.  But to the extent that tax cuts prevent investments in higher education that would increase access to college, improve graduation rates, and reduce student debt, their net effect could be a drag on the economy.  States that have cut higher education funding deeply and yet are considering or have enacted tax cuts this year include Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.”

How have states kept their colleges and universities afloat as legislatures cut their funds?  “Public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding, and rising costs.  Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen (on average) by $2,068, or 29 percent, since the 2007-08 school year, after adjusting for inflation.  In Arizona, published tuition at four-year schools is up more than 80 percent, while in five other states—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Louisiana—published tuition is up more than 60 percent.”  Universities have also been forced to eliminate campuses or programs or departments and to replace full-time professors with part-time adjuncts.

In the July 9 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, describes “Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality” (in a piece that is unfortunately behind a paywall but available in your local library).  Delbanco describes how the growing cost of higher education is putting college out of reach for many students whose family’s income has fallen or stayed flat as tuition keeps rising: “Between 2000 and 2008, the proportion of family income required for families in the bottom income quintile to cover the average cost of attending a four-year public institution rose from 39 percent to 55 percent.  For top quintile families over that same period, the corresponding rise went from 7 percent to 9 percent.”

Delbanco believes higher education is driving inequality: “The story these numbers tell is of a higher education system—public and private—that is reflecting the stratification of our society more than resisting it.  Those students who do get to college are distributed, like airline passengers, into distinct classes of service, but with incomparably larger and lingering effects.  In 2010, private non-profit universities, whose students tend to be relatively affluent, spent on average nearly $50,000 per student—with the wealthiest colleges spending nearly double that amount.  At public four-year institutions expenditure per student was $36,000, while community colleges, where minority and first-generation students are concentrated… could spend just $12,000 per student.”  He adds that while the size of  federal Pell Grants to help the neediest students has grown, in 1970 a Pell grant covered a far greater portion of a student’s costs than it does today: “(A) Pell Grant in the 1970s covered four fifths of total cost at the average four-year public university.  Today it covers less than one third.”  “One result,” Delbanco reports, “is that graduation rates are the same for low-income students with high test scores as for high-income students with low test scores.  In the United States today, three of every five children from families in the top income quartile earn a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four, while for those in the bottom quartile the rate is one in four.”

Mike Rose, whose 2012 book, Back to School explores the role and importance of community colleges for expanding opportunity, posted College Affordability and the Low-Income Student on his blog earlier this week. Rose humanizes the data by describing how the cost of even community college undermines the possibility that students he knows can finish degrees or even shorter term certification programs: “These are successful students, students who have strong Grade Point Averages and who have education and career goals they they are working hard to realize… They live in a tight web of financial constraint… They have different packages of financial aid—some combination of grants, work-study, loans—but it is rare… that they get enough aid to cover their costs.  There are times when they cannot afford textbooks or supplies for occupational courses.  Or they can’t pay phone or Internet bills… One of the students I know lives in a two bedroom apartment with eight other people… Responsibilities beyond school also weigh heavily on them, for they have no financial reserves to draw on—none whatsoever.  One woman was making good progress toward completing an Associate of Science degree on top of an occupational certificate, but had to leave college for a year to pay medical bills and help support her mother.”  For these “diligent, motivated people,” Rose declares, “community college is just within tenuous reach.”

Andrew Delbanco worries that our society may have lost its bearings: “Perhaps concern for the poor has shriveled not only among policymakers but in the broader public. Perhaps in our time of focus on the wealthy elite and the shrinking middle class, there is a diminished general will to regard poor Americans as worthy of what are sometimes called ‘the blessings of American life’—among which the right to education has always been high if not paramount.”

Richard Rothstein to Bank Street College Graduates: Make Your Ethical Dilemmas Public

In a mid-May commencement address at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Richard Rothstein reflected with the graduates about the ethical choices they will face as school teachers and principals.  Ethical choices for educators are something many of us have continued to consider since the tragic Atlanta trial that concluded early in April.  For the Atlanta  judge the ethics were so clear: the teachers and principals were cheaters who deserved to be sentenced to years in jail for changing their students’ answers on standardized tests.  But many of us following that trial also realized that the teachers and principals whose careers were at stake had been asked by society and their school superintendent, Beverly Hall, to accomplish the impossible: turn around the trajectory of their students’ aggregate test scores in just a few months.  Hall had promised she could turn around the whole district, and she threatened to fire educators who couldn’t immediately make their students’ test scores jump. (Here are this blog’s posts tagged Atlanta cheating scandal.)

Rothstein reminded  Bank Street College’s graduates about the teacher who told the Atlanta judge she had cheated to keep her students in school instead of dropping out: “The Atlanta judge, expressing moral outrage, claimed that his harsh sentences—including years of jail time—were justified because the victims of cheating were students, denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures.  But we all know that in practice, their failures would not likely have resulted in special help; holding them back would make them more likely to drop out, not less so.  One teacher told the judge that she believed that changing a young man’s score to passing would make his staying in school, and graduating, more likely, and would enable him to participate more fully in American society.  Was she right?  If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity?  Perhaps you think this is an easy question to answer (although I’m not sure what the answer is), but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face are more complicated.”

In his address Rothstein enumerated just a few of the moral conflicts teachers face in these times of “legal corruption that inevitably results from using tests not to guide instruction, but to punish educators… encouraged in the name of ‘reform’ by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government—that is driving the breakdown of our education system.”  Rothstein described the narrowing of the curriculum as one form of corruption: “It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical fitness, or even mathematical reasoning.”  Another kind of corruption takes place annually, “At the beginning of the school year, (when) principals nationwide gather teachers to review prior year scores, so that students just below the passing point can be identified for special attention.  Because classroom time is limited, this widely-employed strategy necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing.”   Then there is this: “Today, teachers learn to study prior tests, or the textbooks published by test-making companies, so they can prepare students for questions that are more likely to be asked, questions unrepresentative of the full curriculum.  Coaching that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique, or guessing strategies is now called good teaching by unintimidated school administrators….”  In every one of these instances, Rothstein reminded the Bank Street graduates, “It is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?”

Rothstein concluded his remarks by asking Bank Street’s newest school teachers to examine a reality that is far more complicated than the thinking of the judge in Atlanta: “Ethical choices do not consist either of civil disobedience that refuses to participate in an unjust system, or of obsequious compliance with corrupt orders. Ethical lives are comprised of compromises, of considering where to take stands and where not to make waves.  Throughout the careers on which you are about to embark, you will frequently have to decide when to resist, in both tiny and big ways, when to compromise, in both tiny and big ways, and when to capitulate in both tiny and big ways.  You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career… If I can… make any recommendation to you, it is to consider how you can make your anguish more public.”

I urge you to read Rothstein’s stunning Bank Street commencement address.