Navient, the Giant Federal Student Loan Contractor, Cancels 66,000 Loans and Settles with Students It Misguided

In a massive legal settlement last week, Navient, the huge federal student loan contractor, agreed to cancel 66,000 student loans and make modest restitution payments to thousands of borrowers who were poorly advised over many years by Navient’s loan counselors.

For the Washington Post, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains: “Navient, one of the nation’s largest student loan companies, has entered into a $1.85 billion settlement with a coalition of state attorneys general to resolve allegations that it steered borrowers into costly repayment plans and predatory loans.  The agreement Thursday puts to rest multiple state probes into the company’s loan servicing and lending practices dating back to when it was known as Sallie Mae.  The agreement spans 39 states and the District (of Columbia) and will deliver $1.7 billion in private student loan cancellation to 66,000 borrowers nationwide and another $95 million in payouts.”

In coverage last September, Douglas-Gabriel reported that Navient had transferred “the 5.6 million accounts it managed on behalf of the (U.S.) Education Department to Maximus, another loan servicer.” She explained further, “The deal… means the exit of one of the most widely recognized servicing companies from the federal student loan apparatus. It arrives as the federal agency overhauls the management of its $1.6 trillion student loan portfolio.”

However, the NY TimesStacy Cowley and Tara Siegel Bernard explain that when the company ceased being a contractor for the U.S. Department of Education, “The company retained a portfolio of private student loans worth billions of dollars, and it later resumed that line of business. Navient has issued $17 billion in new private loans since it split from Sallie Mae.”

Cowley and Siegel Bernard report that last week’s settlement covers only borrowers from the 39 states whose attorney generals filed the lawsuit along with Washington D.C.  According to Forbes, to qualify for relief, borrowers must reside on one of the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, or Wisconsin.

One of the 39 state attorney’s general who had joined the lawsuit against Navient, Pennsylvania’s attorney general Josh Shapiro spoke about the settlement: “Navient repeatedly and deliberately put profits ahead of its borrowers—it engaged in deceptive and abusive practices, targeted students who it knew would struggle to pay loans back, and placed an unfair burden on people trying to improve their lives through education.”

What exactly did Navient employees do to mislead student borrowers? For Mother Jones, Emma Rindlisbacher explains: “The lawsuit accused Navient of misleading federal student loan borrowers about alternatives to what is known as forbearance. When student borrowers are unable to make payments on their loans, they are supposed to have multiple options, including switching to income-driven repayment plans, which set payments based on a borrower’s income and can be more affordable. Forbearance, by contrast, can be more expensive, because while borrowers are temporarily able to stop making payments, interest continues to accrue… Navient was also accused of improperly originating private loans to for-profit colleges with low graduation rates, resulting in borrowers being unable to pay off their debts.”

Navient’s predecessor company was the huge student loan contractor Sallie Mae from which Navient split off in 2014. In their new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian provide some history—tracing Sallie Mae back to its founding in 1972: “(T)he Higher Education Act of 1965 opened financial doors to private interests due to an accounting gimmick. Direct loans from the government to students were expenditures; they counted as government spending. Loans made by private banks but guaranteed by the government didn’t appear at all, unless the borrower defaulted and the government had to pay the bank. For conservatives it was a way to impose a veneer of shrinking government… For banks it was an unbelievable risk-free opportunity… Their next big windfall came in 1972 with the creation of the student Loan Marketing Association—Sallie Mae—which took the burden off the banks even further by purchasing student loans from them. It was now possible for private banks to loan money, sell those loans to the quasi-governmental Sallie Mae, and then recycle that money to loan it out again… After George H.W. Bush signed a law banning the federal accounting quirks that brought in the banks, his administration made the obvious determination that direct loans from the government would be far cheaper.”  (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 182-183)

Then in 1996, Sallie Mae was “fully privatized… It could set up an internal collections shop and handle servicing.  It could charge fees. More consequential, it could now originate loans that were guaranteed by the government.  Most consequential of all, it could make its very own private loans with high interest rates, not backed by the government, and targeted at the same students who were taking out the government backed loans.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 183)

Cohen and Mikaelian continue: “Finally, perhaps the most unsavory side of this sordid tale is the predatory symbiosis that grew between for-profit colleges and lenders like Sallie Mae. The for-profit colleges served low-income populations, and most of their revenue depended on the free flow of government-backed loans. However, laws were still in place that prohibited them from making more than 90 percent of their income from federal aid and loans. Many for-profits were in danger of crossing this line. Sallie Mae was their savior, because it could help guide students into non-guaranteed subprime loans and keep the for-profit schools under that 90 percent… The real tragedy behind all of these stories is that the victims were believers in hard work and education as a means to get ahead….” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 185)

The Washington Post‘s Douglas-Gabriel describes exactly who will find relief in the settlement reached last week: “The lion’s share of the settlement money will arrive in the form of debt cancellation for tens of thousands of people who borrowed money from Sallie Mae to primarily attend for-profit colleges, including ITT Technical Institute campuses and the chain of Art Institute schools.” Also, “About 350,000 federal student loan borrowers who were placed in certain types of long-term forbearances will receive payments of about $260.”  These are the students counseled by Navient employees into forbearance instead of more affordable alternative payment plans.

The NY Times‘ Cowley and Siegel Bernard show that Navient negotiated a settlement last week that will not punish the company itself as seriously as it might appear: “The loans that will be canceled… are past-due loans made in 2002 and after to borrowers at certain for-profit schools or through Navient initiatives, including its ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Recourse’ programs. The eligible schools include major for-profit chains like ITT and Corinthian Colleges, both of which have collapsed, as well as Bridgepoint Education, DeVry University and Education Management Corporation… While the eliminated loans will be a great relief to the borrowers tho took them out, most of the debts Navient is agreeing to wipe out are long-overdue loans for which it was already unlikely to be repaid. Navient valued the $1.7 billion it agreed to forgive at just $50 million—the total it expected it would ever be able to recoup….”

Poorly Monitored Ohio Charter Schools Prioritize Profits, Forget About Students, Rip Off the Public

The charter school sector in Ohio has always been a damn mess.

Even though EdChoice Vouchers are the primary school privatization scandal in Ohio today, it is good to be reminded—in Carol Burris’s new report on Ron Packard’s for-profit ACCEL charter schools—that our state still fails to protect the children enrolled and the public’s investment in charter schools. Ohio’s charter school sector has not improved despite that the state claims to have tightened oversight, despite that David Brennan sold off his White Hat empire before he died, and despite that a scandal about inflated enrollment forced the shut down of Bill Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) three years ago.

What are some of the long term problems which plague Ohio’s charter sector and which the Legislature has chosen not to solve?

Charter School Sponsors Make a Lot of Money and Too Often Operate with Impunity

Burris reports that while some states hold a tight rein on charter school sponsorship and oversight, today in Ohio, there are 20 active nonprofit charter school sponsors. As an example, Burris describes the reach across Ohio of the St. Aloysius Orphanage in Cincinnati, an institution that has evolved over several generations from an orphanage to a mental health nonprofit. St. Aloysius Orphanage has figured out that in Ohio it is perfectly legal for a nonprofit institution to collect what is sometimes called “walking around money” by sponsoring charter schools, even if charter schools have nothing to do with the mission of the nonprofit. In other words, nonprofits can pad their own operating budgets by becoming Ohio charter schools sponsors. In Ohio, according to the Education Commission of the States, “Authorizers can retain up to 3% of the total amount of payments for operating expenses that the charter school receives (from the state) for administration fees.”  In the 2020-2021 school year, according to the orphanage’s most recent annual report published by Charter School Specialists, St. Aloysius Orphanage collected administrative fees from sixty-two schools across Ohio for which the St. Aloysius Orphanage is supposedly responsible.

Except that, as Burris explains, St. Aloysius Orphanage, the legal nonprofit authorizer, has created a for-profit corporation, Charter School Specialists, to fulfill the responsibilities of a charter school sponsor.  Burris explains that St. Aloysius Orphanage collected $3.6 million in 2019 for sponsoring charter schools and then turned over $2.3 million to Charter School Specialists for overseeing the schools. The problem is that by law, in Ohio, charter school sponsors must be nonprofits, but some Ohio charter schools have even referred to Charter School Specialists as their authorizer. As Burris points out, in 2017, the Plain Dealer reported that Charter School Specialists was discovered to be  profiting from providing direct services to the schools and even operating as the treasurer of some of the schools St. Aloysius Orphanage sponsors—when the formal authorizer is specifically responsible by law for overseeing the schools’ operations under the law—a clear conflict of interest.

In Ohio For-Profit Charter Management Companies Continue To Get Away with Choosing the Members of the Nonprofit Boards that Supposedly Oversee the Work of the Management Company in their Particular School

Ohio requires that charter schools be sponsored by nonprofit organizations and monitored by the appointed members of each charter school board.  The school board is the body which is responsible for hiring a management company (assuming the board wants to hire a management company) and overseeing the performance of any charter management company. In the early days of Ohio charter schools, David Brennan was notorious for hand picking the board members of charter schools that were were supposed to oversee the relationship of their school to his White Hat empire.

Carol Burris demonstrates that conflict of interest still persists in the schools managed by Ron Packard’s for-profit ACCEL Network, which took over many of Brennan’s schools when he became ill. Burris explains that ACCEL’s speciality is taking over struggling charter schools.  “When ACCEL took over Buckeye prep in 2018, it operated the school as Buckeye for one year—before shutting it down to put another in its place. The for-profit needed to find a board to act as the nonprofit face for the new for-profit-run school.”  That isn’t how it’s supposed to go.  The whole idea is that a community of educators gets together and comes up with an idea for a nonprofit charter school. They propose a board and find a sponsor.

For-Profit Management Companies in Ohio Still Own Real Estate Affiliates and Lease—At Outrageous Rents—School Buildings They Own to the Nonprofit Charter Schools they Manage

Burris reports that Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, a nonprofit low-income housing nonprofit, which served as a sponsor in 2017 of 50 charter schools, also owned a for-profit corporation which owned a building that it rented to Buckeye Prep, a charter school for “more than $162,000 in building and furniture lease payments during 2017.”  Later in 2020, after Buckeye Prep joined Ron Packard’s ACCEL network and found a new sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage, Buckeye Prep “paid ACCEL’s related real estate company $145,006 in rent, with ACCEL projecting a rent payment of $319,840 for the very same building in 2025.  At that rate, ACCEL would recoup what they paid in six years—precisely the length of the school’s charter.”  Burris explains: “Global School Properties, located at the same address as ACCEL and Pansophic in Virginia, is the real estate arm of ACCEL, which allows it to acquire properties and then basically rent their own buildings to themselves with public funds—through the schools they manage. ”

Sweeps Contracts Still Exist in Ohio

A sweeps contract is an arrangement by which a charter school board turns over virtually all of the state funds that support the school—with the exception of the 3 percent fee to the sponsor and the rent—to the charter management company.  The management company is then expected to manage all of the school’s functions—usually without transparency even to the members of the school’s appointed board.  Burris describes the for-profit  ACCEL’s management during 2020 of Capital Collegiate Preparatory Academy in Columbus: “The management contract charges the charter school 15 percent of all revenue received, with a few exceptions. That is not where payments would end. A read of the management contract clarifies that ACCEL was in charge of, and would be compensated for all of the school’s day-to-day operations—from the curriculum to student records to all personnel services.”

The Overall Picture of Charter Schools in Ohio

The thread running through Burris’s Ohio story is the growing power and profiteering by Ron Packard’s ACCEL network: “In 2014, the online for-profit charter chain K12 Inc. announced a new yet-to-be-named company financed by Safanad Limited, a Dubai investment company.  Pansophic Learning was launched later that year as the Safanad/K12 joint venture. The name of its American-based charter school company is ACCEL Schools. The CEO of both Pansophic and ACCEL is Ron Packard, formerly of K12 Inc….. ACCEL’s primary strategy is to pluck schools from established for-profit chains that failed or are folding, including Mosaica, White Hat Management, and I CAN Schools.  With no shortage of failing charter schools to buy, ACCEL’s growth has been fast paced. It now manages 73 charter schools (brick and mortar or online) in Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington, and it is attempting to open schools in West Virginia… ACCEL’s largest portfolio is in Ohio. Forty-six schools list ACCEL as their operator.  However, we also found an additional 17 schools run by a superintendent with an ACCEL email address, all but two under the Constellation Schools brand.  And in 2018, ACCEL bought out White Hat’s failing online charter school, OHDELA, resulting in a total of 64 schools in that state.”

Clearly, the Ohio Legislature has been unwilling, whether because of ideology or due to investments by lobbyists, to oversee the charter school sector to protect the children enrolled and the taxpayers from abuses by unscrupulous charter school operators and authorizers.

I encourage you to read all the way to the end of Burris’s critique to learn about one instance when people originally recruited by ACCEL—because they would be friendly to ACCEL— to form the board of directors of Buckeye Prep (now called Capital Collegiate Preparatory Academy) realized the school was paying more attention to profits than to the well being of its students. Board members woke up and led the board to hire Tisha Brady “to serve as a compliance officer to get a better understanding of the school’s day-to-day operations.”  In this one instance, the charter school board did its job: “Brady, a former lobbyist for School Choice Ohio and longtime supporter of charter schools” told Carol Burris: “This is simply a cash grab using disadvantaged students as ATMs to launder funds into the pockets of a private corporation.”  Subsequently, two of Capital Collegiate Preparatory Academy’s board members resigned—board president Leslie Eaves and board member, Rhonda Whitfield.

But the story doesn’t have a happy ending: “The school’s website now lists only four board members, still including Whitfield, who is gone—a violation of law that requires five board members.” In a new seventh grade added this year, “one teacher teaches all subjects on a rotating basis and out of certification. But, those seventh-graders, no matter how poorly prepared, increased the head count, which in turn increased ACCEL’s fees for both rent and management… And so, it will continue until the school’s charter is up in 2025.”

Burris concludes: “Right now, nearly half of all charter schools in Ohio are run by for-profits. Most of these charter schools are located in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.”  And it turns out that the Ohio Department of Education awarded half of all the money granted to Ohio in a 2015 federal Charter Schools Program Grant to charter schools that were part of Ron Packard’s ACCEL network.

School Vouchers are One of the Ways Privatization Is Undermining Our Society

Private school tuition vouchers are a big deal in Ohio right now. 100 school districts filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the rapidly growing statewide EdChoice Voucher Program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax dollars from the public schools which desperately need the money for educating the state’s 1.8 million public school students and because the voucher program has accelerated racial segregation.

The expansion of school vouchers always loomed as former U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s primary cause. Congress managed to avoid passing her proposed federal $5 billion tuition tax credit Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program despite that every year for four years she tried to insert this program into the federal education budget. But today many of the state legislatures are growing voucher programs or starting new voucher initiatives.

Here in Ohio, a professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Stitzlein explained last week why she thinks giving parents marketplace choices about their children’s schooling is dangerous for the rest of us: “Voucher programs hand over decision-making power solely to guardians of school-aged children, who compose less than a quarter of American adults. These guardians then independently decide where to spend a taxpayer-funded voucher. Often, they look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars… And because private schools are not required to accept all students or to provide equitable services to all children, communities lose the ability to demand fair educational opportunities without discrimination toward any child.”

The continuing momentum across the state legislatures for private school tuition vouchers is only one aspect of the movement toward privatization of public life. In a new book, The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian examine school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools as merely one strand of a movement that has also included attempts to privatize healthcare, water, transportation, environmental policy, the criminal justice system, Social Security, public libraries, and higher education. Cohen and Mikaelian consider the following questions regarding how growing privatization threatens our democracy .

Why should citizens be paying closer attention to growing privatization? “Understanding privatization means understanding that it is first and foremost a political strategy… (B)ut it has also become a grab for billions of dollars in contracts and fees. In the years since it sprang from the mind of Milton Friedman as a way to undercut government ‘monopoly,’ it has also become a way for profiteers to tap into the $7 trillion of public revenue… spent by local, state, and federal government agencies each year and carve out a piece (sometimes a very big piece) for themselves.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 21).

What is the definition of ‘privatization’?  “Many define privatization as simply the outsourcing of a good or a service to a private company, but it is much more than that… Privatization is the transfer of control over public goods to private hands. Sometimes this happens during procurement—the outsourcing of public services to a private company. In other cases it’s due to austerity—reducing public funding of a vital public good and letting private options take over. Or it can happen through deregulation—when we eliminate or fail to enforce public control…. In all these ways, privatization is a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 4-5)

What are public goods and who gets to define them?  “Most economics textbooks, and many economists, define public goods in pretty strict terms: they are things that are nonexcludable (meaning that it’s either impossible or impractical to prevent people from using them) and nonrivalrous (meaning that one person using them does not take away from another person’s use).”  Cohen and Mikaelian, however, believe that definition is incomplete: “In a democratic society public goods should not be defined by the market. They should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… Clearly, it is possible to exclude some people from schools… But we decided long ago that this would not happen at K-12 public schools.  We could make all our roads exclusive, but we decided that it would be better for both the economy and each of us individually if the public controlled most roads, paid for them, and permitted access.” (The Privatization of Everything,  pp. 5-6)

Who is responsible for protecting the public?  “In a democracy, it is the public’s job—not the market’s—to decide what to cede to the private sphere… In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine)…. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 7)

How can a responsible public protect public goods?  “That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. Public control is exercised in different ways; the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods….  What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them…. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 8)

What is the difference between citizens and consumers?  “We are both citizens and consumers, but privatization encourages us to approach public goods merely as a shopper while convincing us to forget that fellow citizens need that public good too…  As consumers, our only responsibility is to ourselves. As consumers, we promote exclusions, but at the same time we are excluded. We do not have power over what is given to us; we have no right to expect a voice in what choices we have. Private corporations decide for us… (F)or things that we value both for ourselves and for the common good—clean water, education, public health, safe roads and bridges—let’s approach these as citizens of a democracy, as co-creators of public goods… as part of something larger and not merely as isolated individuals, and as a people defined by our responsibilities rather than merely by our desires.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 14)

What is the consequence of failing to protect the public from rampant privatization?  “Privatization is not just about money or about who provides what service; privatization is about values, about whether we are committed to promoting the general welfare as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution…. Privatization… facilitates the upward transfer of wealth, exacerbates inequality, creates powerful interests, separates us from each other, and segregates us by race and class… Reclaiming public goods… is about who we are and what we believe.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 17-18)

Cohen and Mikaelian conclude: “Our definition of public good boils down to a few simple ideas. Public goods are things we all benefit from even if we don’t personally use them, such as education, public transportation, the safety net, and the justice system. They are the things that are essential for life, including water and clean air. They are things that can make such broad and fundamental improvements to our quality of life that no one should be excluded… They are the things that recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence and make us a healthier, fairer, more compassionate and more democratic nation.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 284)

Yesterday morning, when I thought this post was complete, I happened upon this provocative twitter thread from Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider considers several other ways the privatization of education undermines the public good:

“The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is, schools should respond to what their customers want. I have a few major concerns about this.

  • “First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill. Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align with the public good.
  • “Second… Consider how many people in a typical business ‘make something, vs. how many play supporting roles.  Almost everyone in a school is on the ‘making’ side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean organizations.
  • “Third schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback. but we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
  • “Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution. If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school, who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
  • “(T)here’s also the principal-agent problem…. In schools, the ‘customer’ is… who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
  • “(I)f we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
  • “If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity. That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer. That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
  • “Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation. There are very few places left in our society where we come together around our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers. If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?”

Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

100 Ohio School Districts File a Lawsuit Declaring EdChoice Vouchers Deprive Ohio’s Public School Districts of Essential Revenue

On Tuesday, 100 Ohio public school districts and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution. EdChoice is Ohio’s rapidly growing, publicly funded school voucher program.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “A coalition of 100 school districts sued Ohio over private school vouchers Tuesday, saying that the hundreds of millions of public dollars funneled away from public schools have created an educational system that’s unconstitutional.”

The lead plaintiffs are Columbus City Schools, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, Richmond Heights Local School District, Lima City Schools, Barberton City Schools, Cleveland Heights parents on behalf of their minor sons—Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly, and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. The Cleveland law firm of Walter Haverfield is representing the plaintiffs.

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs declare: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

The Ohio Legislature incorporated a new “Cupp-Patterson” Fair School Funding Plan into the current biennial budget last June, but plaintiffs charge that the simultaneous expansion of EdChoice vouchers in that same budget has blocked the phase-in and full funding of that school funding plan: “The Ohio Department of Education funds EdChoice Program Vouchers from the budget appropriation designated for public schools. Because public funds are finite, funding EdChoice Program Vouchers out of the foundation funding designated for public school districts inevitably depletes the resources designated by the legislature for educating Ohio’s public school students. H.B. 110 (the state budget bill) initially incorporated the salient features of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort to fund Ohio’s public schools adequately and equitably as required by the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State…. However, due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice program, the enacted version of H.B. 110 funded only up to one-third of the increases required by the proposed Fair School Funding Plan over the next two fiscal years.”  “(T)he Fair School Funding Plan was not fully funded due to the ballooning costs of the EdChoice Program. Only 16.67% of the Fair School Funding Plan is being funded through Fiscal Year 2022 and 33% of the Fair School Funding Plan will be funded through Fiscal Year 2023, as specifically delineated in H.B. 110.  This means the General Assembly will meet only a fraction of its constitutional obligation, by the standards it has adopted, to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools for Fiscal Year 2022.”

The new lawsuit charges that the Fair School Funding Plan had been formulated to address inadequate state funding of public schools over recent years: “Over the last decade, the formulas implemented by the General Assembly for funding Ohio’s public schools reflected the amount the General Assembly was willing to spend on public education, rather than the realistic cost of providing a thorough and efficient education to all of Ohio’s students. Due to budget freezes or minimal increases over the last decade, state funding to Ohio’s public school districts has not even kept pace with inflation since Fiscal Year 2011. Additionally, because the funding formula was frozen in Fiscal Year 2020-21 at the 2019 level, but vouchers and “community schools” (which is what Ohio calls charter schools) were funded by way of deductions from total school funding,  affected public school districts lost approximately $193 million in state funding during these formula freezes. In contrast, the per pupil EdChoice Program Voucher payments rose by 15% for a grade 1-8 voucher and by 25% for a grade 9-12 voucher for Fiscal Year 2022 alone.”

The lawsuit delineates the losses in public school funding for one of the plaintiff districts: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, for example, is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”

The Complaint names five counts:

  1. “Creation of one or more systems of uncommon schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  2. “Failure to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  3. “Segregation in violation of the thorough and efficient system of common schools as provided in Article VI, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution.”
  4. “Diversion of funding in violation of the “No Religious or Other Sect Shall Ever Have Any Exclusive Right To or Control Of, Any Part of the School Funds of the State” clause of Article VI.”
  5. “Declaratory Judgement—Violation of Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 2 (asserted by Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly only).” This section continues: “No compelling or legitimate state interest can account for this discriminatory treatment of Plaintiff Students in comparison with their private school counterparts. No valid government explanation can justify spending two to ten times more per pupil to subsidize private school tuition than the per-pupil amounts paid by the state to educate Ohio’s public school students… Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff Students are also entitled to permanent injunctive relief barring further EdChoice Program payments to subsidize private school tuition made from the state’s foundation school fund.”

At the press conference where the lawsuit was announced, a member of the Richmond Heights Local Schools Board of Education, Nneka Jackson addressed the third count, that EdChoice Vouchers have illegally exacerbated racial segregation in Ohio’s public schools: “If someone tells you this is about helping poor minority children, hook them up to a lie detector test ASAP and stand back because the sparks are going to fly… About 40 percent of Richmond Heights residents are white. Before the EdChoice private school voucher program, about 26 percent of the students in the Richmond Heights School District were white and 74 percent were students of color. Today, after EDChoice, Richmond Heights is three percent white and 97 percent students of color. Private schools are allowed to discriminate, plain and simple, based on disability, disciplinary records, academic standing, religion and financial status. These are often proxies for race and other protected characteristics. Ohio is essentially engaged in state-sponsored discrimination in admissions and retention. You know who can’t do this? Public schools. Common schools.”

Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

I just received my pre-ordered copy of a fine new collection of essays from Teachers College Press.  In Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, editors David Berliner and Carl Hermanns pull together reflections by 29 writers, who, as the editors declare: “create a vivid and complex portrait of public education in these United States.”

It seems especially appropriate at the end of 2021 to consider one of the essays included in this new book—probably Mike Rose’s final essay—“Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric.” Rose, the wonderful writer and UCLA professor of education, died unexpectedly in August.

Rose considers the many possible lenses through which a public can consider and evaluate its public schools: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures.  Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.”

“Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal.”

In this retrospective essay, Rose reflects on a journey that resulted in his landmark book on public education, Possible Lives.  For several years Rose visited public school classrooms across the United States, classrooms recommended to him by national and local experts as sites of wonderful teaching. He begins his new essay in rural eastern Kentucky remembering an evening visit to a bar at the end of a day observing the high school social studies classroom of Bud Reynolds.”This testimony to the importance of the public school opens in the AmVets Club bar in Martin, Kentucky, population 550, circa 1990.  I am here as a guest of Bud Reynolds, a celebrated social studies teacher at nearby Wheelwright High School, about whom I would be writing for a book called Possible Lives (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995) documenting good public school classrooms.” Bud introduces Rose to two friends, Tim Allen and Bobby Sherman, both of whom work for the one remaining railroad that runs through Martin. “While Bud and Tim play a video game, I end up talking with Bobby, a conversation that reveals the place of school in both memory and the practice of day-to-day living…  What… stands out to me is the role several of Bobby’s high school teachers play in his life.  An English teacher changed his reading habits, and in a way, I assume, that contributes to his current political and social views… I also can’t help but wonder about the degree to which the intellectual challenging of his chemistry teacher—the cognitive gave and take, the pleasure in it, his esteem for his teacher’s intellectual ability—the degree to which this extended experience plays into Sherman’s own sense of self as a thinker, and as proof of the presence of ‘damned intelligent people’ in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Field.”

Rose’s essay now takes his journey to a different kind of public school setting: “Let us move now from a town of 550 to Chicago, a city with the third largest school district in the nation, and to the story of a school and the community it represents… Like Martin, KY, Chicago was part of my itinerary for Possible Lives.  I visited six public schools in Chicago, one of which was Dyett Middle School, named after Walter Henri Dyett, a legendary music teacher in the Bronzeville community of Chicago’s South Side… From its inception in 1975, Dyett was not only a valuable resource for neighborhood children, but also represented a rich local history of Black artistic and educational achievement.” At Dyett Middle School, Rose listens as an English teacher engages 6th grade students in an open discussion about the books on which they will be writing reports and about questions and concerns they have about the teacher’s expectations for the reports they will be writing.  As classes change, Rose stops in the hallway to talk with several students: “‘Students learn here,’ one boy tells me. ‘They teach you how to speak and write,’ a girl adds. ‘You feel at home here,’ says another boy. ‘They don’t make fun of you if you mess up.'”

Now Rose updates more than two decades of news about Dyett: “Twenty years later, Dyett was one of 54 ‘failed’ schools targeted for closure by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CEO of the district.  These schools were ‘underenrolled and underperforming.'” Dyett had been transformed into a high school, and, “By 2000, interwoven with large-scale transformations in the economy, urban revitalization projects, and changing demographics and gentrification, a new wave of school reforms had some urban districts attempting to reorganize their schools into a ‘portfolio’ of choices. Some schools were converted to selective admission schools or to magnet schools… while other schools were defined as general admission schools.  Add to this mix the growing number of charter schools, and one result is the diminishment of general admission community schools like Dyett, as their enrollment is drained away.”

Except that the school meant too much too the community: “But the community around Dyett wouldn’t allow it, mounting a protracted, multipronged campaign that led, finally to a hunger strike that made national news… The children I saw during my visit to Dyett would have been in their late twenties by the time the order to close the school was issued—their parents in their forties or fifties. We have, then, a sizeable number of people in the community who associate Dyett with, as the 6th grader put it, feeling at home, with being valued and guided, and with learning about themselves, each other, and the world.”

As he pursues his purpose—reflecting on public schools and the social fabric—Rose rejects one of the lenses he named earlier through which a society can observe and evaluate its public schools: “With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics.”  This is, of course, the rubric of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the rest of the two-decade technocratic experiment with corporate style public school accountability.

“As a rule, public policy decisions in our technocratic age tend to focus on the structural bureaucratic and quantitative dimensions of the institutions or phenomena in question—that which can be formalized, graphed, measured.  The other perspectives we’ve been considering, those dealing with economic, political, and social history and with the place of the school in a community’s social fabric, tend to be given short shrift or are ignored entirely… Creating or expanding opportunity for underserved populations is… an equity goal given for contemporary school reform policy. As we saw in the Dyett/Chicago example, opportunity was put into practice by creating choice options—which, paradoxically, involved closing existing options. In technocratic frameworks, opportunity easily becomes an abstraction.  But opportunity is a lived experience, grounded in a time and place, and therefore, there can be situation specific constraints on opportunity.”

Rose concludes: “The journey I took across the country visiting schools for the writing of Possible Lives enhanced my understanding of the complex position the public school holds in the social fabric. Journey… provides a literary device to sequence my visits to different schools, a narrative throughline, a travelogue of schooling.  Journey also has psychological significance. A journey is an odyssey of discovery…. I would learn a huge amount about the United States and the schools in it—but metaphorically of inner worlds as well….  And journey becomes method… it… has the potential to open one to experience, to learn, to grasp…. You talk to a guy in a bar who lives his decades-old education through conversation, an education he received in a school founded three-quarters of a century ago when the region’s economy was emerging… If this kind of journey attunes you to the particulars of place and its people, it also provides the longer view. As you visit schools, you see similarities across difference and, eventually, interconnectedness and pattern.  There is a grand idea in all this—and you sense it—a vast infrastructure of public schooling.”

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in New Church-State Separation, School Voucher Case

On December 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in another school voucher case that tests the separation of church and state. The case is Carson v. Makin, about school vouchers in the state of Maine.

Carson v. Makin was litigated by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. This case is not an example of parents who want vouchers going out and looking for a law firm to defend their case. For decades the Institute for Justice has been attempting to undermine the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of religion from the mandates of government.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ freedom to choose their religion or no religion, and to practice religion as they choose: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause declares that government won’t favor or establish any one religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from telling citizens how they should worship.

The Institute for Justice first litigated cases on school vouchers in the Cleveland voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that vouchers are constitutional as long as the state gives the money to the parents and allows the parents to choose the school instead of awarding the voucher directly to the religious school.  It was a case decided on the Establishment Clause, which says government cannot endorse or establish any particular religion. Zelman v. Simmons Harris significantly expanded school vouchers across the states.

Then in 2020, when it argued for the constitutionality of state dollars going directly to religious schools in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Institute for Justice used an entirely new pretext, this time under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The Institute for Justice alleged that if a state awards tax-funded vouchers for private schools, it can’t discriminate against religious schools just because they are religious. The logic seems tortured, but today’s U.S. Supreme Court majority accepted it.

In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center traces the history of public funding for private high schools in some of Maine’s small towns: “The case, Carson v. Makin, challenges Maine’s exclusion of ‘sectarian’ schools—those that include religious instruction—from the state’s ‘tuitioning’ program. Maine has, for nearly 150 years, allowed towns too small to operate high schools of their own to pay for their students to attend other public or private high schools. The state has, since 1980, placed a ban on schools that would use the public funds for sectarian (religious) teaching… In Maine, tuitioning is used as a way to deliver public education, with the private schools standing in the shoes of the public schools that would otherwise have to be built. As such, it would make no legal or policy sense to hold the private schools to a different set of rules around curriculum, discrimination or proselytizing.”

A professor of law at the University of Dayton, Charles J. Russo explains how the issue in Carson v. Makin differs from Espinoza v. Montana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the state could not discriminate against a school based on its religious status. Carson v. Makin is about the school’s practice—the explicit teaching of religion, which the state of Maine prohibits. On this matter, the state has prevailed in two appeals of this case: “The federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its “tuitioning” statute did not violate the rights of the parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously affirmed in favor of the state… First, the First Circuit decided the requirement that schools be ‘nonsectarian’ did not discriminate solely based on religion or punish the plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their religion.  This is because the rule has a ‘use-based’ limitation—which may prove to be a crucial distinction. In other words, sectarian schools are denied funding not because of their religious identity, the First Circuit wrote, but because of ‘the religious use that they would make of it.'”

Following oral arguments last Wednesday, VOX’s Ian Millhiser reported: “At an oral argument held Wednesday morning, all six members of the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared likely to blow a significant new hole in the wall separating church and state… All six of the Court’s Republican appointees appeared to think that this exclusion for religious schools is unconstitutional—meaning that Maine would be required to pay for tuition at pervasively religious schools. Notably, that could include schools that espouse hateful worldviews. According to the state, one of the plaintiff families in Carson wants the state to pay for a school that requires teachers to sign a contract stating that ‘the Bible says that God recognizes homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’ and that ‘such deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’ In the likely event that these plaintiffs’ families prevail, that will mark a significant escalation in the Court’s decisions benefiting the religious right… The justices are likely to place some limits on its decision in Carson, but it’s not yet clear how they will justify those limits… (I)t’s hard to draw a principled line between a Court decision requiring Maine to fund religious education as part of its existing private school tuition program and a decision requiring all states with a public school system to fund religious education.”

It would be a big mistake to assume that most American religions are in favor of any of these cases. Under the free exercise clause, a large number of religious organizations do not want government interfering with their beliefs and practices. On behalf of 24 organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief arguing that the Supreme Court should not, under the Free Exercise clause, affirm the constitutionality of publicly-funded vouchers for religious schools in Maine.  The amici in this case include: the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Catholics for Choice, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ; the Hindu American Foundation, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Churches, The Sikh Coalition; and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The General Counsel and Associate Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Holly Hollman explains why, from the point of view of the organizations filing this amicus brief, this libertarian school voucher case is bad for religion: “Should states be forced to fund the training of young men and women to serve the Lord and become leaders in their church?  Of course not…. In Carson v. Makin, parents are seeking state support for their children’s private religious education. The Baptist Joint Committee and its allies are urging the Court to recognize the historical reasons for keeping the government out of religion… These concerns include protecting individual conscience, respecting inherent limits of government authority in religious matters, and avoiding the creation of divisions based on religious differences.” Hollman reviews Espinoza v. Montana (2020) in which “the Court… held that a Montana tax credit program that funded scholarships to private schools must include private religious schools, notwithstanding Montana law intended to separate church and state.” She explains that in Espinoza, the Court held that the tax credit program violated the Free Exercise Clause because Montana provided tax credits for private schools but excluded some schools because of their religious status. She explains further: “The Carson case tests whether this Free Exercise Clause nondiscrimation rule will be extended to prohibit state programs that are designed to avoid government involvement in religious uses of government funds—such as the explicitly religious activity of providing an education designed to instill a biblical worldview. In our view, it should not.”

Finally in this school year when libertarian organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Manhattan Institute are coordinating and scripting the actions of parents mobbing school board meetings demanding the end of mask mandates, the banning of books, and limitations on what can be taught about slavery and racism, there is another way to look at this case as part of today’s American ethos of individualism and so-called parents’ rights.  Nobody is trying to stop parents from choosing a religious school, but the case of Carson v. Makin, litigated by the Institute for Justice, is intended to force government to pay for the parents’ private school choices.

J4J Alliance Organizes Urban Parents to Demand Federal Dollars for Full-Service Community Schools

Throughout this autumn, we have been reading about loud protests at local school board meetings, protests against mask wearing and and honest teaching about slavery in American history.  These disruptive protests have been organized by groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education. The strategy here is being scripted by far-right think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.

But another important community organizing initiative, supported by the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Network and coordinated from place to place by the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), has grown and solidified over the past decade. The Schott Foundation describes this work: “The Opportunity to Learn Network has been at the forefront of every major positive shift in public schooling for more than a decade: trailblazing education funding campaigns; kickstarting the school discipline reform movement, and establishing the community schools model as the future of the American schoolhouse. How do we win systemic change?  Through grassroots organizing.  Education justice philanthropy centers ‘on-the-ground’ organizing, building the power of the people closest to the problem, so they can transform the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial injustice.”

A leader in this effort with the Schott Foundation is the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supports parent and student organizing in cities across the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the Camden Parents Union, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Jersey City,  the Paterson Education Fund/Parent Education Organizing Council, and Parents United for Local School Education in Newark;
  • In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Education Justice, and the Urban Youth Collaborative;
  • In Pennsylvania, the Education Rights Network & One Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Student Union, Racial Justice Now, Youth On Board, and Youth United for Change;
  • In Michigan, the Detroit Life Coalition, and Keep the Vote No Takeover of Detroit;
  • In Illinois, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization of Chicago, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Chicago;
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project, and Parents on the Move;
  • In California, the Oakland Public Education Network;
  • In Kansas, Kansas Justice Advocates;
  • In Wisconsin, Schools and Communities United of Milwaukee;
  • In Arkansas, Grassroots Arkansas; and
  • In Connecticut, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition.

Earlier this week at the National Press Club, the Schott Foundation and J4J convened allies—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD and Congressmen Jamal Bowman (D-NY) and Chuy Garcia (D-IL)—to support the Equity or Else Campaign and to advocate for the educational equity initiatives in President Biden’s proposed federal budget for the current fiscal year. Two of the most important items in Biden’s budget proposal are, first, doubling Title I funding, which supports public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and second, allocating more than $443 million for full-service, wraparound Community Schools, a significant increase over this year’s $30 million investment.

The federal budget is always supposed to be passed by September 30, but Congress has, as usual, delayed the vote with a series of continuing resolutions. To avoid a government shutdown this week, Congress passed another continuing resolution until February 8, 2022.  The Equity or Else Commission will hold town hall meetings, undertake “listening projects with people in under-served communities across the country,” and organize local community members to advocate for President Biden’s education priorities.

In an article last summer for The Progressive, education writer Jeff Bryant explained why President Biden’s proposal to expand full-service Community Schools—which locate medical, dental, mental health, and social services right in the school—signifies a radical and much needed shift in the direction of federal public education policy:  “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability. It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores).”

Bryant continues: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuses’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service Community Schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Kudos to the Schott Foundation and the Journey for Justice Alliance for convening allies and organizing parents to demand support for the schools in our nation’s poorest communities. President Biden’s proposal to expand the federal budget for full-service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million will, if enacted by Congress, be a ground-breaking investment to better equip public schools to serve families. Grassroots action by all of the member organizations of the Journey for Justice Alliance is urgently needed to ensure that this exciting expansion of Community Schools is fully realized.