Hollowing Out the Public

While many imagine that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.  Our society and politics have veered dangerously toward policy that rewards individualism and neglects public responsibility for the well being of all.

Some examples—

There is Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that unless the legislature does something drastic in the next few weeks, the state cannot open public schools for the 2016-17 school year based on a school funding plan that has long violated the state’s constitution, despite that the legislature has been pretending to fix it.  In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature slashed personal income taxes with the promise that the state’s economy would grow as a result.  The growth did not occur, and a state budget crisis ensued instead.  In February, after the state supreme court said the legislature must correct school funding by June 30 or the state’s schools must close, the legislature passed a bill to give poorer districts some additional state funding, but on Friday, according to the NY Times’ Julie Bosman, “In a 47-page ruling, the court rejected that bill, saying the Legislature’s formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair wealth-based disparities among the districts.'” John Hanna of the Associated Press quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “(I)t would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-2017 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for the poor ones… Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.”  Whether schools open in Kansas next fall will depend on whether the legislature allocates more money at its closing session this week.

Then there is the plight of state colleges and universities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2008 recession devastated state budgets for colleges and universities.  Though states have begun to restore allocations for higher education, tuition is up across the nation and course offerings and even building maintenance have suffered.  “Forty-five states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession.  States cut funding deeply after the recession hit.  The average state is spending $1,525, or 17 percent, less per student than before the recession.  Per student funding in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—is down by more than 30 percent since the start of the recession.  In 11 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these, three states—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vermont—have cut per student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”  The report adds that 38 states have begun to restore funding, averaging an increase nationally of 4 percent.  “Over time, students have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education.” “The cost shift from states to students has happened over a period when absorbing additional expenses has been difficult for many families because their incomes have been stagnant or declining.”

In Sunday’s NY Times, David Chen explains the local implications of this trend in New York City: “The troubles at City College, and throughout the entire CUNY system, are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country.  Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”  In New York City, “While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs—the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled—has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation….”  Chen profiles Anais McAllister, a senior English major who had hoped to earn a teaching credential until cancellation of required education courses spoiled her plans: “When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year—and another $6,000 at least—to graduate with the education credential.  With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.”

Finally there is the impact of libertarian politics and far-right lobbying by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in our statehouses.  These are the groups driving efforts to reduce regulation and rapidly expand privatization—with powerful charter school networks and their supporters protecting their right to drain tax dollars out of state budgets.  It has looked as though legislators in Michigan are finally coming together on a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from massive debt driven up under state-appointed austerity managers, but a stumbling block is that while the Senate seems willing to establish a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the location, number and quality of charter schools—many of them in Michigan for-profit, the House is balking.  It is known that the Great Lakes Education Project, supported by the far-right Dick and Betsy DeVos, is lobbying hard against the inclusion of the Detroit Education Commission in the Detroit financial rescue, and Kevin Cotter, Speaker of the Michigan House, is reported by the Detroit News to be opposed to the establishment of the commission that would regulate charters: “Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to ‘unfairly’ target charter schools.”

Brent Larkin, the former editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in a column on Sunday, quotes U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown summarizing the many ways Ohio’s state legislature is beholden these days to privatization and special interests instead of the public good: “The legislature is so close to the payday lenders, so close to the for-profit charter school operators, so close to the oil and gas people, and so close to the gun lobby… It’s their far-right politics.  It’s their campaign contributions. It’s the whole network in Columbus that betrays the public interest so often.”

Report Demonstrates that Greater Investment, Well Distributed, Raises School Achievement

Last week the Educational Testing Service published an important report, Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding, Staffing Resources, and Achievement Gaps, on why it is important for school districts to have sufficient funding and more specifically the ways in which funding matters most.  The report’s authors are Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and David Sciarra and Danielle Farrie of the Education Law Center.

The report is technical, but one is struck by its clarity and its plain good sense: “How much you spend in a labor intensive industry dictates how many individuals you can employ, the wage you can pay them, and in turn the quality of individuals you can recruit and retain.  But in this modern era of resource-free school reforms, the connections between revenue, spending, and real, tangible resources are often ignored, or, worse, argued to be irrelevant… The primary resources involved in the production of schooling outcomes are human resources—or quantities and qualities of teachers, administrators, support, and other staff in schools.  Quantities of school staff are reflected in pupil-to-teacher ratios and average class sizes.  Reduction of class sizes or reductions of overall pupil-to-staff ratios require additional staff, thus additional money, assuming the wages and benefits for additional staff remain constant.  Qualities of school staff depend in part on the compensation available to recruit and retain the staff—specifically salaries and benefits, in addition to working conditions.  Notably, working conditions may be reflected in part through measures of workload, such as average class sizes, as well as the composition of the student population.”

The authors investigate several revenue-related issues over time and report that school revenues from state and local taxes grew on average between 4.5 and 5.5 percent between 1992 and the high point in 2008 and then, by 2012 fell back, on average, to the level of funding in 2000.  As one might expect, “(S)tates with higher per pupil spending tend, on average, to have more teachers per 100 pupils, that is, on balance, across states, higher spending on schools is leveraged to increase staffing quantities.”  Further, “(S)tates with more progressive distribution of current spending also had more progressive distribution of staffing; that is, in states where higher poverty districts are able to spend more per pupil than lower poverty districts, those higher poverty districts are able to leverage that spending to have more teaching staff per pupil than lower poverty districts.”  “In other words, as one might expect, state aid and federal revenue can improve the progressiveness of current spending across districts within states.  These relationships hold not only across states but also over time.  When state aid and federal aid are increased, fairness generally increases… 20 years of data on all states (and all districts in them) validate that increased targeted funding to and spending in high-poverty districts within states lead to substantive increases in staffing ratios in those same districts leading to more progressive state educational systems in terms of both funding and staffing.”

The question everyone asks, of course, is whether these differences in spending and staffing affect test score outcomes and whether they close the so-called achievement gaps.  The authors offer some caveats, most notably that “achievement levels of children from low-income and non-low-income families across states depend on the income levels of these families, and so, too, do the gaps.” In their research, the authors correct as well as they can for external variables. They explain that, “The analysis presented here validate the conclusion that variations in available revenues and expenditures are associated with variations in children’s access to real resources, as measured by the competitiveness of the wages paid to their teachers and by pupil-to-teacher ratios and class sizes….

  • “States that apply more effort—spending a greater share of their fiscal capacity on schools—spend more generally on schools.
  • “These higher spending levels translate into higher statewide staffing levels—more teaching staff per pupil.
  • “These higher spending levels translate into more competitive statewide teacher wages.
  • “Increased targeted staffing to higher poverty schools within states is associated both with higher measured outcomes of children from low-income families and with smaller achievement gaps between children from low-income and children from non-low income families.”

And finally, “(A)cross states, over the past decade and a half in particular, states with lower pupil-to-teacher ratios and fairer distribution of staffing tend to have both higher outcomes among children from low-income families and smaller (economic) achievement gaps…. We also have evidence that states in which teacher wages are more competitive have smaller achievement gaps and higher scores for children from lower income families.  We can also show that the level and distribution of pupil-to-teacher ratios are highly and consistently sensitive, both across states and over time, to changes to the level and distribution of school district current spending; that is, more spending, holding other factors constant, drives lower pupil-to-teacher ratios, and fairer spending across districts within states drives fairer pupil-to-teacher ratios… States with higher spending have more competitive wages, all else being equal.”

The report basically proves that you get what you pay for, and if you want to close achievement gaps between poor children and their privileged peers, you should spend what you need to to ensure that the children living in the poorest communities get the added attention they need from highly qualified teachers.

Reading About Education in the Press: Consider the Source and Demand Documentation

At the end of last week a friend forwarded a column that had appeared in his local paper.  It is short, pithy, and readable.  Unfortunately, although it begins with some facts that are perfectly accurate about the public schools, its author quickly twists her argument, neglects the truth and reflects the bias of her employer.  The article is written by Vicki Alger, a research fellow at The Independent Institute.  It was circulated by the Tribune News Service, affiliated with the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, and Philadelphia Inquirer.  It is just the sort of little column that an editor might pick up to fill a space left on the opinion pages.

Alger begins by noting that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty flat for decades now. She is correct that today’s school reforms have failed to raise achievement. However, she quickly jumps to the assumption that, because test scores have not risen, increased spending on education—up, she says, by 140 percent between 1971 and 2012— has failed. There is a very important omission here: she neglects to mention that in 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that brought vastly increased spending on education for students with special needs.  Here is what Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute explained in his 1995 book, Where’s the Money Gone?: “A detailed examination of expenditures in nine typical U.S. school districts shows that the share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%. Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Alger then sets up several straw men: “We were promised that illiteracy would be eliminated by 1984.  We were promised that high school graduation rates would reach 90 percent by the year 2000 and that American students would be global leaders in math and science.  And we were promised that by 2014 all students would be proficient in reading and math. None of this has happened.”

So… concludes, Alger, because we have not arrived at utopia, we must get rid of the U.S. Department of Education and put parents in charge through school choice. “Research shows that when parents have more choices in education, both students and schools benefit, and do so at a fraction of the cost of top-heavy federal programs. The resulting competition for students and their associated funding puts powerful pressure on schools to improve.”

Some pretty convincing evidence shows that putting parents in charge through school choice isn’t working so well and that competition that privileges charter entrepreneurs is undermining public school districts.  In Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, there is evidence that rapid expansion of school choice through charter schools is contributing to the bankrupting of the public school districts and resulting in the closure of too many traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Even the more respectable academic proponents of school choice are getting worried.  In December of 2014, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), came to the Cleveland City Club to announce the release of a scathing report from CREDO on Ohio’s school choice marketplace.  Raymond shocked listeners to her City Club address by announcing 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 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.”

Then, early in 2015 Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—penned a scathing analysis of school choice in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

So what is The Independent Institute, whose point of view Alger parrots?  Its 2015 Annual Report brags: “Independent remains at the forefront of truly innovative alternative solutions—far beyond vouchers, charters, or other ‘semi-public’ schools… Allowing parents, teachers and others to take ownership of current public schools under Employee Stock Ownership… Private voucher programs… Education Savings Accounts that enable parents to direct education spending for their children… Low-cost for-profit and non-profit private schools.”

Pauline Lipman, professor of policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago would define the Independent Institute’s theory of education as neoliberal: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services. People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself.'” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, p. 11)

Alger’s neoliberal argument rests on protecting individualism, parent power, freedom, liberty, choice and competition.  It would seem, however, that in its education system a good society would protect the rights of children who lack the power to compete—children living in homeless shelters, children with special needs, English language learners, children whose parents don’t know how to play the game of competition.  The idea of public education is inclusive if imperfect. While public schools can never make all children proficient, eliminate illiteracy, or ensure that every child graduates from high school, the idea of public education historically has assumed that society is required to provide schooling for all.

Benjamin Barber explains it best:  “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)

Segregation — Racial, Ethnic, and Economic — Dominates Nation’s Schools

Last week marked the 62nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end school segregation.  Coincidentally last week, a small school district in the Delta town of Cleveland, Mississippi that has held out for half a century to preserve separate schools for black and white students was ordered by a federal court to merge its segregated middle and high schools.  The court order ends what Jimmie Gates of the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger calls “a five-decade legal battle to desegregate schools in the 12,000-population city in north Mississippi.”  Ironically the court order to desegregate this small, Mississippi school district runs counter to what’s happening as the rest of the nation resegregates.

To recognize the anniversary of the Brown decision, researchers who have been tracking school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation for years at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project—Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee, Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley—have published a research brief that tracks how the courts and and policy makers have turned away from efforts  to desegregate the nation’s public schools racially, ethnically, and economically.

According to the Civil Rights Project’s researchers, the most racially segregated states today are New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and New Jersey.  They add: “The relative decline in the ranking of Michigan, which was often up with Illinois and New York as most segregated, probably relates to the drastic shrinkage of the Detroit Public Schools and suburbanization of black families in that metropolitan area.”

Today, the nation’s most populous and urban northern states post the highest rates of black-white school segregation, while the Brown decision was quite successful in integrating the schools across the South.  Why is that?  “Because of the dramatic changes in southern segregation produced by the enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, none of the 17 states that completely segregated schools by law (e.g., the type of mandatory segregation that was the focus of the Brown decision) have headed this list since 1970…. The ironic historic reality is that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court supported very demanding desegregation standards for the South while the interpretation of Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation limited the impact of Brown in the North and West.  This was a massive oversight since segregation in those regions resulted from residential segregation, itself a result of a myriad of governmental policies and private decisions like segregative school and teacher assignments by school boards, discriminatory housing policies and other local and state policies.”

The report examines demographic trends over the past quarter century and examines data from 1990 to 2013, when the number of public school students grew across the United States from 41.2 million to 49.9 million. “Over a similar time period, the racial composition of the schools changed dramatically, falling from 69% white to 50% white.  The share of Latino students during this time soared from 11% to 25%, while the black share of the enrollment remained around 15%.  Asian students climbed from 3% to 5% of the enrollment.”

“The year 1988 was the high point of desegregation for black students in terms of the share of students in majority white schools.  By 1991, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court authorized the termination of desegregation plans, beginning a period of continuously increasing segregation for black and Latino students that continues through our latest year of data.”  “(D)uring the quarter century since the high point in 1988, the share of intensely segregated nonwhite schools (which we defined as those schools with only 0-10% white students) more than tripled, rising from 5.7% to 18.6% of all public schools.”

Latino students have been increasingly isolated during the same period: “California, New York, and Texas have the nation’s highest segregation for Latino students….” with California’s Latino students more segregated than either Latinos or African Americans in any state. “Other studies by our Project show that the epicenter of this segregation is in the greater Los Angeles area.  There were few efforts to desegregate Latino students through court orders or Office for Civil Rights enforcement actions after their rights to desegregation remedies were belatedly recognized by the Supreme Court nearly two decades after Brown in the 1973 Keyes decision… What is surprising is the spread of very high segregation of Latinos in some states with a far lower proportion of Latinos in the statewide total enrollment, including in Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.”

What has made racial and ethnic segregation more complicated is the simultaneous growth of family poverty and the overlay of racial and economic segregation: “The massive increase in poverty and near-poverty that makes students eligible for free and reduced priced lunches reflects the lack of mobility and declining real incomes experienced by many millions of U.S. families in the last generation.  Over a 20-year period, the proportion of poor students… in the school of the typical white student has shot up from 17% to 40%, which is actually higher than the school poverty level was, on average, for black students at the beginning of the same period.  Black students at that time were in schools where low income students made up 37% of their peers.  In 2013, that same figure for black students is 68%, identical to the number reported for Latino students… This double segregation means serious isolation from racial and class diversity and exposure to the many problems that systematically afflict poor families and communities.”

The researchers at the Civil Rights Project blame public policy at the federal level and across the states for ignoring the problems of racial and economic isolation and instead pursuing a different strategy for school reform that most people now agree has been a failure: “The challenge of segregation grows each year and takes on more urgency as nonwhite students make up half of all students, yet it has been a long time since it was approached with vision to further integration and to provide the needed resources to do so.  Instead, we have spent decades trying another approach: policies that have focused on attempting to equalize schools and opportunity through accountability and high-stakes testing policies, not to mention the federal subsidization of entirely new systems of school choice, like charter schools, without any civil rights provisions.  These policies have not succeeded in reducing racial segregation or inequality.”

Don’t Mess With Texas: Supreme Court Says Byzantine and Ossified School Funding Is OK

Amy Waldman at ProPublica just interviewed National Public Radio reporter Cory Turner, who recently led NPR’s six month investigation of school funding inequity across America.  Here is how Turner summarizes what he learned as he led the team that put together NPR’s massive series of reports:

“Some 45 states have had school funding lawsuits… The challenge is when so much of that funding depends on local affluence and local school district lines.  It’s informed in a big way by old segregationist housing policy… I mean, this is the nation we live in, and the fact is, there are an awful lot of school districts that are low wealth, low income districts, and they just don’t have the same capacity to fund-raise as other more affluent districts.  That’s just a fact.  Some states have been very progressive about reckoning with that and using state dollars collected at the state level to help offset some, if not much, of that imbalance.  But lots of other states just haven’t done much, if anything, about it.”

In the weeks since NPR’s report was released, the Texas Supreme Court weighed in—again—and upheld the state’s funding as constitutional, even though the justices criticized the way Texas funds schools.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss: “The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday (May 6) that although the state’s ‘Byzantine’ school funding system is ‘ossified’ and urgently needs to be modernized, it is constitutional—a defeat for more than 600 school districts that had been fighting for years for relief.”  The Supreme Court’s decision declares: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements.”

School funding inequity in Texas has been on display lately as Dallas’s wealthy suburban school districts have been competing in what NY Times reporter Mike McPhate calls a stadium-building arms race: “Voters in McKinney, Tex., have given the go-ahead to spend nearly $63 million on building a high school football stadium…. The 12,000 seat facility and an attached events center would be just the latest in a growing list of supersized high school stadiums in Texas.  The McKinney project has frequently been compared to the $60 million high school stadium in nearby Allen. With seats for 18,000 people, the Allen stadium has nearly the same capacity as Madison Square Garden.  Another school stadium under construction in Katy, outside Houston, will have 12,000 seats at a projected cost of more than $62 million.”

Meanwhile, John Kuhn, the school superintendent in the tiny, rural Texas Perrin-Whitt school district describes what school funding inequity means for children whose schools struggle with very little: “Suburban public school parents want for their children precisely what author Jonathan Kozol has vividly described as the components of the wonderful education poor children deserve (and need, if they are to enter into the full promise of this nation).  These parents want their children’s schools to have well-appointed libraries, reasonable class sizes, ample time for exploration and play, comfortable climate-controlled buildings, safe surroundings, and green grass. The only difference is that poor people have little more to cling to than Jonathan Kozol’s eloquence; suburbanites have political heft and can actually make sure their children get something approaching their loving standard of educational quality.”  (Fear and Learning in America, p. 128).

The recent ruling by Texas’s highest court that found Texas school funding constitutional is only the latest in a long, long history.  Kia Collier for the Texas Tribune reports: “Friday’s ruling is the second time the state’s highest civil court has upheld the state’s school finance system.  Since the 1980s, school districts have repeatedly sued the state in an attempt to increase public education funding, and have often prevailed.  The latest case, brought by more than two-thirds of Texas school districts, is the seventh time such a case has reached the state Supreme Court.”

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding was recently exacerbated when Texas, like other states, slashed taxes.  The Washington Post‘s Strauss explains the origin of this latest lawsuit: “The Texas case stemmed from some $5.4 billion in budget cuts approved by the legislature in 2011, which the school districts contended left them with unfairly distributed funding and forced many to raise taxes to provide even a basic education for its students.  Two-thirds of the school districts in the state sued, and in 2014, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz sided with the plaintiffs in a written opinion that was appealed to the Supreme Court by state officials.  He ruled the funding system unconstitutional, just as he had twice before.” The Texas Tribune does note that, according to court testimony, approximately $3.4 billion of school funds cut in 2011 were restored in 2013, although the majority of the state’s school districts say it is not nearly enough.

And it would seem, according to Valerie Strauss, that politics is also involved: “All of the justices on the Texas high-court are Republican, the legislature is Republican-controlled, and Dietz is a Democrat.”  David Warren of the Associated Press  quotes the recent decision, in which the justices suggest that, despite the constitutionality of the state’s system, the legislature needs to improve the way schools are funded.  Warren worries, however, that without prodding from the court, legislators are unlikely to make the needed investments: “Whether lawmakers will accept that challenge remains to be seen. When the 2017 legislative session convenes in January, there will be a number of other financial obligations, including covering the continued costs of $3.8 billion in property and business tax cuts, fixing the state’s embattled foster care system and finding more money for a road and highway network overtaxed by a booming population.”

Perrin-Whitt’s Superintendent John Kuhn summarizes the power dynamics underneath school finance problems—the politics that allow a court to declare a funding system constitutional even as suburban districts are investing over $60 million apiece for their high school sports stadiums: “The politically powerless can apparently do little to stop the growth of their children’s classes, the crumbling of their facilities, the closing of their schools, and the replacing of their certified teachers with temporary interns. Inequity is the mechanism that allows tax resisters to selectively shortchange education and avoid picking a fight with suburban parents who won’t hesitate to call elected officials out if they don’t take good care of their children, and whose voices are sure to be attended to.  Inequity is enabled by results-oriented school reform, as politicians and foundations insist on averting our view from the inputs.” (Fear and Learning in America, pp. 128-129)

NY Times Features Investigation of Ohio’s Notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow

Take a look at Motoko Rich’s piece in today’s NY Times about Ohio’s utterly worst charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  According to Rich, “more students drop out… or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country, according to federal data.  For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not.”  ECOT is an online school where students study using their own computers at home.

Rich adds: “Few states have as many students in e-schools as Ohio.  Online charter schools here are educating one out of every 26 high school students, yet their graduation rates are worse than those in the state’s most impoverished cities….  With 17,000 pupils, most in high school, the Electronic Classroom is the largest online school in the state,”  but the school’s graduation rate was only 39 percent in 2014.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was founded by William Lager, and Rich explains that his two privately held companies, Altair Learning Management and IQ Innovations provide all of the services without any requirement that ECOT conduct a competitive bidding process.  “For example, in the 2014 fiscal year, the last year for which federal tax filings were available, the school paid the companies associated with Mr. Lager nearly $23 million, or about one-fifth of the nearly $115 million in government funds it took in.”

Rich quotes William Lager defending his school’s poor academic record and graduation rate because he says the school accepts many students who are off-track.  Despite that public schools, that are required to accept all students, are being held accountable for students who are far behind, Lager is described by Rich as arguing that his school “should be judged based on an accountability system that successfully controls for the academic effects of demographic factors such as poverty, special needs and mobility.”  Rich questions his assumptions, noting that, “the proportion of students who come from low-income families—just under 72 percent—is lower than in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton.”

State Senator Peggy Lehner, who chairs the Ohio Senate Education Committee, told Rich she is not sympathetic to Lager’s argument: “When you take on a difficult student, you’re basically saying, ‘We feel that our model can help this child be successful.’  And if you can’t help them be successful, at some point you have to say your model isn’t working, and if your model is not working, perhaps public dollars shouldn’t be going to pay for it.”

What Motoko Rich neglects to cover in today’s article is the state of Ohio’s current serious skirmish with the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, whose lobbyists have been trying to block a bill sponsored by the Senate Minority Leader, Joe Schiavoni, to eliminate state reimbursements of more than $6,000 per pupil to the online schools for phantom students who don’t really attend school even though they may have signed up.  Senator Schiavoni’s proposed law to prevent such a practice is pretty basic—require e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours students spend doing coursework—require the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student fails to log-in for ten consecutive days—require that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation.  William Lager has amassed enormous political power among powerful Republicans who hold large majorities in both houses of Ohio’s legislature and it is known that he is trying to block the proposed law’s passage.  Catherine Candisky and and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch have reported that: “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”

This blog has covered the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow extensively here.

Illinois Researchers: School Closures Compound the Problems of Urban Segregation

Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois and Jin Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in his department. have published an important paper, The Impact of School Closure on Equity of Access in Chicago in the Journal of Education and Urban Society, where it is available only to subscribers.  However, a short summary, Children in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Are More Likely to See Their Local Schools Close, by Lubienski and Lee has been published in a blog at the London School of Economics.

School closures, justified as one of the turnarounds prescribed as a punishment by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program, are among the most troubling manifestations of the test-and-punish school “reforms” with which our society has recently been experimenting. Although the metric used for judging school quality is a school’s aggregate performance on the annual federally mandated standardized test, researchers continue to find that standardized tests correlate more closely with the average income of the families whose children attend the school than the quality of the school—its teachers and its programs. Researchers have also shown that, after their school closes, students cannot always move to a higher scoring school and that school closures remove important neighborhood institutional anchors.

Lubienski and Lee’s new study again confirms that there should be serious concern about school closure as a “turnaround” policy.  And their study questions the rationale too often provided by school districts when they close a school—that the school suffered from under-enrollment:

“Public schools in the U.S. are increasingly being shut down when they have been identified as underperforming on the basis of test scores and graduation rates.  The traditional approach to school closure has been to reduce financial losses caused by empty classrooms and under-enrolled schools…. Indeed, this classic approach to maximizing efficiency is now evident in school closure policies in larger cities which are experiencing out-migration and depopulation. But now it has been combined with the idea of punishing apparent organizational underperformance… In new research, we examine the possibility that school closings shape inequitable access to schools particularly for children in less advantaged neighborhoods…  (O)ur study… raises the likelihood that students in segregated communities have less access to neighboring schools.”  The study focuses on the closure by Chicago Public Schools of 50 schools in the spring of 2013—8 percent of the district’s schools.

In a series of maps, Lubienski and Lee show that in Chicago, “the policy produced a notable change in access in areas with a high density of both African American and Latino American children.  This suggests that school closures may be depriving students in particular areas of the opportunity to attend more convenient neighboring schools.”  Noting that parents and community activists have filed civil rights complaints against school closures not only in Chicago but also in New Orleans and Newark, Lubienski and Lee explain, “Here, the emerging question is how space-neutral school closings undermine spatial equality of educational opportunities.”

While school district officials tend to present school closures as the result of under-enrollment, the characteristics of particular neighborhoods attach additional meanings to a district’s decision: “In contrast to perspectives that cast geography as produced by natural and neutral causes, we see differences in demographic and socioeconomic characteristics affecting decisions, such as where to reside, or how to get to school.  Subdivided geographies determine and furthermore reproduce locational advantages and disadvantages…”

The researchers conclude that in the context of a mass of factors that segregate poor children of color, school closures have become a part of the structural racism in America’s big cities. “(T)here are urban ‘ghettos’ created by the geographic isolation of at-risk populations in inner cities. These sections of large cities have a long list of problems and threats, such as poor job markets, high rates of crime, and deficient access to public services…. For urban school districts that plan to close schools in an attempt to save money, schools located in poor areas are often the first targets to be eliminated or consolidated.  Consequently, this process leads to the loss of community schools for children who already reside in less advantaged neighborhoods. Current school closures, which tend to neglect underlying spatial contexts in urban cores, expose children in racially segregated and highly insecure communities to a double trap by lowering their ease of access to schools.”