Is the Long Alliance of Betsy DeVos and Cory Booker Really Over?

I am not one for complimenting U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but you have to give her credit for one virtue: she is not an opportunist.  She remains a dogged school choice fanatic even though for three years now, she has been unable to get Congress to fund her highest priority, her Education Freedom Scholarship neovoucher-tuition tax credit program.

This year she launched her beginning-of-school-year tour at a Lutheran school in Milwaukee, home of the oldest school voucher program in the country. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the start of DeVos’s September tour: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began her 2019 back-to-school tour Monday.  Given that she runs a publicly funded department and that most U.S. students attend schools in traditional public systems, you might think she would go to one in a district working hard to improve its academic performance.  Nope.  She didn’t go to a public school, and she didn’t choose a city because of the achievements of its public schools.  Rather, she went to St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee and touted that city as the ‘birthplace of modern education freedom.’  That is a reference to a program started under a 1989 law that was the first in the country to give substantial public funding for students to use for private, nonsectarian schools.  It later expanded to include religious schools.  That program was part of what grew to be known as the ‘school choice’ movement, which seeks to find alternatives to traditional public school districts so families can decide for themselves where to send their children and to serve as an escape for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods.  For decades, DeVos has played a key role in that movement, pushing against critics who argue that using public funds to support choice schools undermines the traditional public system, and that it aims at privatizing the nation’s most important civic institution.”

This week, for the Washington Post, Michael Kranish profiles a politician who, unlike DeVos, has demonstrated that he is the consummate opportunist, Cory Booker, who is running for president as a Democrat and who is claiming this year that he has abjured his previous alliance with Betsy and Dick DeVos.  Booker served for years and years as a spokesperson for school vouchers. And he doesn’t appear to have given up his support for charter schools—another privately operated and publicly funded school choice scheme. Kranish details the history of Booker’s previous alliance with Betsy DeVos, an alliance that dates back to a pro-voucher speech Booker delivered nearly two decades ago, a speech in which Booker said: “Wealthy people… ‘have vouchers because they have the power to choose schools for those children.’ It was unfair, he said, that the country’s leaders in effect ‘say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.'”

What Booker somehow missed understanding back in 2000—and what DeVos continues to deny— is that both vouchers and charters suck millions of essential tax dollars out of the public schools to follow a few children even as the majority of children in the public schools lose out. The economist, Gordon Lafer explains the fiscal realities very clearly (and while he focuses on charter schools, it is also true that voucher schemes similarly undermine public school districts as students carry away tax dollars in tuition vouchers for private and religious schools): “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

As if to emphasize her determination to support school choice whatever the cost to the public schools her U.S. Department of Education is supposed to protect, DeVos visited Detroit this past week—the city where 80 percent of the charter schools are known to be operated for-profit, even while the city’s public schools have languished.  Michigan Advance‘s Allison Donahue explains that, “Michigan now has the most for-profit-run charter schools in the country.”

DeVos and her husband, Dick, residents of Grand Rapids in western Michigan, once led an unsuccessful campaign to try to bring school vouchers to Michigan, and on her tour this past week, DeVos once again pitted her ideal of marketplace school choice to the systemic provision of public education.  The Detroit News quotes DeVos as she spoke last week at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy—one of 55 charter schools in Detroit.  As usual, DeVos cast the teachers unions as her enemy: “I am focused on doing what is right for students, individual students.  They are focused on protecting their system, protecting ‘what is’ at the expense of ‘what could be’ for kids… Their policies, their approach, has failed way too many kids, and it’s just inexcusable.  And I don’t apologize one bit for continuing to fight for every kid in this country.”

Betsy DeVos is an utterly consistent individualist, even though she seems not to grasp that the purpose of her job as U.S. Secretary of Education is to protect our nation’s system of public schools and to use the tools of her department—the Office for Civil Rights, for example—to ensure that public schools serve the needs and protect the rights of all American students.

Unlike DeVos, Cory Booker, the presidential candidate, cannot brag about consistency in his understanding of education policy.  Kranish examines Booker’s political career: “Cory Booker was a little-known member of the Newark City Council 19 years ago when he received an extraordinary invitation from a Michigan group connected to Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were leading Republican proponents of a state ballot initiative that would allow taxpayer-financed vouchers to pay for private schools. The DeVos family wanted Booker, an African American Democrat living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey, to become the face of their effort in Michigan. ‘We wanted someone who wasn’t from the suburbs,’ Dick DeVos said at the time.  Booker accepted.  Appearing in the state at a Grand Rapids debate called ‘School Vouchers–Yes or No?,’ Booker represented ‘Yes.’  He passionately echoed the DeVos view that parents should be able to use tax dollars to pay for a child’s private school education, according to a video of the event obtained by The Washington Post.”  (You can see a video clip of the debate embedded in Kranish’s article.)

Kranish continues: “The debate was the prelude to an unlikely alliance with Betsy DeVos. Booker served with her on the boards of pro-voucher groups, attended numerous meetings with her across the country, and supported key parts of her agenda.  Like a number of elected officials representing cities with poor education records, Booker sought alternatives to a failing system. He decided to back vouchers and charter schools. Booker’s political career took off as a parade of wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others who supported DeVos’s ‘school choice’ viewpoint poured money into his campaigns and pet projects. But as Booker runs for president, his relationship with DeVos, his previous support of vouchers and his continuing praise for charter schools present potential roadblocks… In response, Booker has defended his record but also performed a series of reversals and denials. In the most striking instance, Booker said in a recent interview with The Post at his campaign headquarters here that he doesn’t recall his participation in the Michigan debate… Booker now takes a view opposite of his debate stance. He told The Post in a recent candidate survey that ‘the evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help—and in fact, hurt—the cause of educational equity.’  In his interview with The Post, Booker said that while he did initially support vouchers when he was on the City Council, he turned against them by the time he became mayor.”

However, in a stunning 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff describes Booker, then mayor of Newark, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to bring charter schools to Newark.  Booker recruited Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to make a $100 million donation to be used for that specific purpose and helped arrange for the splashy announcement of that gift on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

It is hard to be confident about where Cory Booker stands when it comes to public education.  Does he understand the fiscal realities posed for public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice? All we can really know for sure about Cory Booker is that he has a history as an opportunist promoting what has been, so far, a successful political career.

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New Reports Confirm Persistent Child Poverty While Policymakers Blame Educators and Fail to Address Core Problem

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a stunning analysis, by the newspaper’s data analyst Rich Exner, of the school district grades awarded by the state of Ohio on the state report cards released last week.  The new report cards are based on data from the 2018-2019 school year.  I encourage you to follow the link to look at Exner’s series of bar graphs, which, like this one, present a series of almost perfect downward staircases, with “A” grades for school districts in communities with high median income and “F” grades for the school districts in Ohio’s poorest communities.

The correlation of academic achievement with family income has been demonstrated now for half a century, but policymakers, like those in the Ohio legislature who are debating punitive school district takeovers, prefer to blame public school teachers and administrators instead of using the resources of government to assist struggling families who need better access to healthcare, quality childcare, better jobs, and food assistance.

Ohio’s school district grades arrived this week. At the same time, and with less fanfare, arrived a series of reports on the level of federal spending on children, reports documenting that, as Education Week‘s Andrew Uifusa explains: “The share of the federal budget that goes toward children, including education spending, dipped to just below 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2018—the lowest level in the decade.”

On Tuesday of this week, the Urban Institute released a new report detailing trends in federal spending on children’s needs: “(O)verall spending on children represents a relatively small share of total federal spending, and that share is dwindling. In 2018, overall federal spending on children younger than 19 fell from recent years to about $6,200 per child.  Education and other discretionary spending categories saw the steepest declines last year, as they were squeezed by growing spending on health and retirement programs, as well as interest payments on the national debt.”  Further, federal spending on children is growing thin in particular areas as children’s needs compete with one another: “Increased mandatory spending on health programs for children and adults is putting pressure on education spending and other discretionary spending on kids. In 2018, federal spending on education dropped by $1.9 billion.  This is part of a long-term trend, as 2018 federal spending on elementary and secondary education was 48 percent below peak spending during the recession (in 2010) and 14 percent below pre-recession spending (in 2008).”  “As spending exceeds revenues year after year, the national debt will continue to climb… Under current policies, interest payments on the debt are projected to exceed spending on children in the next few years.”

A new report this month from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Children and Families in Trouble, examines the persistence of child poverty and the federal government’s failure to address it: “Poverty in the United States continued a sluggish decline in 2018, falling to 11.8 percent, with children and young adults still experiencing the highest rates.  Child poverty (ages 0-18) and young adult poverty (ages 18-24) remained unacceptably high at 16.2 percent and 15 percent respectively with alarmingly large racial and ethnic disparities in poverty.  Young children, under age 5, remain the poorest of all, at 17.7 percent….”  “Racial disparities are persistent, stark, and caused by structural factors… Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be poor (29.5 and 23.7 percent respectively) compared to 8.9 percent of non-Hispanic white children, despite high levels of work among their families.”

CLASP reports relatively high levels of employment among families with poor children, but problems with the kind of work available, the wages, and the conditions: “More than two-thirds of poor children (70.3 percent) live in households with at least one worker. Low wages, inadequate hours, and underemployment mean that work still does not pay a family-sustaining wage for millions of households. While unemployment remains near historical lows, a substantial share of low-income workers is employed part time involuntarily, meaning they would prefer to be working full time but are unable to find full-time work or get sufficient hours from their employer. Low-wage jobs predominate in the fastest-growing sectors, such as retail and food service. Such jobs are characterized by few benefits; unstable and unpredicable schedules; and temporary or part-time status.”

In the 13th annual release, last week, of its proposed Children’s Budget, First Focus on Children summarizes several areas in which Congress needs to support children with increased spending:

  • “Almost 80 percent of eligible 3-5 year old children lack access to Head Start programs.
  • “The Federal Government is not fulfilling 55 percent of its funding commitment for Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) grants.
  • “Of the households on the waiting list for housing assistance, 60 percent are families with children.
  • “75 percent of poor families in the U.S. who are eligible for cash assistance do not receive it.
  • “Nearly 83 percent of children who receive free or reduced price lunch during the school year do not have access to the summer meals program.”

The Trump administration has now also proposed a new “public charge rule” which would eventually deny green cards and application for citizenship to members of immigrant families who use public benefits. The new rule will apply in the future to the possible citizenship of today’s infants and children in these families.  In its recent report CLASP highlights special problems for immigrant children if, at the end of a 60 day posting period, the rule goes into effect (on October 15, 2019): “Among children, 425,000 more were uninsured in 2018 versus 2017, reversing a decades-long trend toward greater coverage. This concerning reversal, including a significant worsening among Hispanic children and among young children… likely reflects multiple attacks on health insurance coverage for people with low incomes. Notably, the Trump Administration is waging ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA and Medicaid access, and a hateful anti-immigrant agenda… (is) causing a chilling effect on immigrant families’ access to public programs.”

In late August, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) highlighted “Six Ways Trump ‘Public Benefits’ Policies Harm Children.” NEPC’s newsletter examines how the Trump administration’s proposed new rule would constrain opportunity for children in vulnerable immigrant families: “On August 12th the Trump administration proposed a new rule to change the criteria considered when the U.S. government decides whether to extend visas or grant permanent residency (‘green cards’).  These criteria—which are inextricably tied to a history of bias in the immigration process—have long included evidence about the likelihood of the immigrant becoming dependent on public benefits. But the approach that is now used focuses on cash benefits, such as Supplemental Social Security (‘disability’) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (‘welfare’).  The proposed rule will expand that to the main non-cash benefits used by immigrants: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps; Medicaid; and housing vouchers and other housing subsidies.”  NEPC continues: “(Seventeen) states plus DC have brought two lawsuits against the administration, alleging that the rule redefines the term ‘public charge’ inconsistently with Congress’ intent in the Immigration and Nationality Act; that it violates constitutional equal protection guarantees by effectively targeting immigrants from poorer areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; that it infringes on states’ rights to protect their own residents; and that it punitively, arbitrarily and capriciously targets immigrants for using public benefits programs that are used by about half the country’s residents.” While school breakfast and lunch programs are not directly affected, “current policy automatically enrolls students in the federal free and reduced-price school meal program if their families receive food stamps… Accordingly, if immigrant families avoid SNAP, (their children) are less likely to receive the meals.”

My reason for quoting all of this information about persistent child poverty is to make the needs of America’s poorest children visible. The bar graph produced by the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner clearly shows that child poverty affects academic achievement. Policy makers, however, in the spirit of test-based, sanctions-based school accountability, are instead determined to impose punishments on the school districts serving poor children. They imagine that if they shift the blame onto teachers, nobody will notice that they are themselves failing to invest the resources and power of government in programs to support the needs of America’s poorest children.

Ohio Senate Education Committee Blames Educators While Underfunding Schools in the State’s Poorest Communities

Members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, who have been holding hearings on a new state school district takeover plan, continue to scapegoat the teachers and educational leaders in the school districts which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children.

Despite a large body of research correlating standardized test scores with aggregate family and neighborhood income, Bill Phillis reports that twice last week at a hearing convened by the Senate Education Committee, one senator repeatedly asked: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?”  The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

I guess these guys adhere to the old idea that if we were merely to exchange the staffs of the richest and the poorest school districts in the state, the challenges for students in poor communities would magically disappear.  Instead, research shows that economic segregation—where wealthy families are moving farther and farther into the exurbs—has been rapidly accelerating.  Our senators must imagine that public school educators can, on their own, swiftly erase the alarming and growing economic gap between children growing up in pockets of extreme privilege and children segregated in our most impoverished city neighborhoods or living in remote rural areas.

There is a lot of evidence, however, that Ohio’s state senators are mistaken when they blame schools and public school educators.  The state takeovers are based on a set of overly complex and opaque calculations that yield the  school district grades on a state report card.  This year’s state report card ratings were released just last week.  It is not surprising, given what is well known about the correlation of standardized test scores with family and community wealth, that nine of the top ten report card scorers in Ohio are wealthy suburbs of Ohio’s big cities: Solon, Rocky River, Chagrin Falls, Beachwood, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, and Bay Village—suburbs of Cleveland; Madeira and Indian Hill—suburbs of Cincinnati; and Ottawa Hills—a suburb of Toledo.

In fact, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner published a stunning story on the correlation of Ohio’s report card grades with family income.  Here are his findings: “The latest set of Ohio school report cards not only provided a scorecard for each district statewide – they once again drove home the point that wealthier districts do better on such reports. For example, incomes in the “A” districts were three times higher than those in the “F” districts, and the child poverty rate was 13 times higher in the worst performing districts, cleveland.com found. To get an idea of how closely report card grades from the Ohio Department of Education follow demographic factors, cleveland.com compared those grades to U.S. Census Bureau community data for household income, child poverty and the education level of the adults. In nearly every key report card category, the trends followed census data closely. For example, taking the median household income for each district, the average among those getting “A” overall grades was $95,423. It was $65,307 for B-graded districts, $54,058 for C-graded districts, $44,428 for D-graded districts and $32,658 for F-graded districts. In the A districts, 58.5% of the adults age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That share drops to 17.1% for D-graded districts and 16.3% for F-graded districts. There are outliers, of course. They will be highlighted in an upcoming story. But overall, the trends hold true.”

An enormous body of academic research confirms Exner’s finding that those who judge the quality of public schools by their standardized test scores fail to consider the enormous consequences of economic inequality and poverty. The problems have been exposed by research in a number of disciplines.

In an exhaustive book-long analysis in 2017, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the design and use of standardized testing, demonstrates the many ways standardized-test-based-accountability distorts and undermines the educational process itself and the reasons why standardized tests are an inappropriate way to measure the quality of schools. Koretz explains that school districts serving primarily privileged students and school districts serving concentrations of poor children cannot be held to the same timelines for meeting specific standards: “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.” (pp. 129-130)

In Ohio, in a September 4, 2019 report, economist Howard Fleeter explains: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”

In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically underfunded the very school districts that Ohio’s state senators propose to try to address with governance changes through state takeover:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

The National Education Policy Center’s  Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel summarize the research: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

What is the punitive state takeover plan currently being considered by the Ohio Senate Education Committee? The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports that the plan closely resembles the plan the committee failed to negotiate into the biennial budget passed in July.  O’Donnell writes: “The latest plan… is similar to plans floated by the Senate last spring, but which never won enough support to pass… The plan… eliminates the controversial ‘Academic Distress Commissions,’ and CEOs that take over for local school boards today after three years of failing grades on state report cards. In their place would be a new State Transformation Board that oversees improvement efforts across the state, and new School Improvement Commissions… for each district that does not improve. Those commissions would have many powers similar to the Academic Distress Commissions today.”  For example, the School Improvement Commissions would still have the power to overrule a school district’s elected board of education.  (Here is a detailed description of the School Transformation Plan the Senate proposed last spring.)

Last week, Ohio State Senators Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Tina Maharath (D-Columbus) formally called for an overhaul of the way the state calculates the report cards on which the state takeovers are based.  Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, explains: “There are serious flaws in the way we calculate districts’ grades… Report cards don’t reflect the quality of the education children receive nor the progress they make. The current measures are not meaningful for the purpose of assessing the district contribution to learning. They penalize large and high-poverty districts, which they threaten with state takeovers. The State recognizes the report card is flawed and depicts a false narrative for our communities and school districts. The legislature has the power to fix these mistakes, and we need to do that immediately.”  Fedor and Maharath explain: “The Progress grade, which represents 20 percent of a district’s total grade, is particularly unfair because the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) uses a formula to adjust for the district’s size that penalizes the grade of large school districts… If a district makes progress, but not as much as the average school district in the state, their grade will be low – not giving credit for actual percentage growth.”

The state report cards not only target the school districts serving very poor children with state takeover but they also feed racial and economic housing segregation by encouraging families to avoid poor and mixed income communities where the schools may be serving their students well despite overall lagging scores. The state report card grades are an example of state-sponsored educational redlining.

And like the legislators on the Senate Education Committee who blame teachers and school administrators for school districts’ aggregate test scores, the state report cards encourage the scapegoating of the dedicated educators who choose to serve the children living in Ohio’s poorest communities.

After Months-Long Battle, California Finally Enacts Modest Oversight of Charter School Sector

There’s an old cliche that almost perfectly describes the struggle to regulate an out-of-control charter school sector from state to state:  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

In late August, in a presentation at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft named lack of effective regulations in the Ohio laws that enabled charter schools as one of the things he regrets about his tenure as Ohio governor.  Taft, a Republican, served for two terms as governor, from 1999-2007. In his remarks last week Taft explained that during his term, “We were not as observant as we should have been with regard to the early development of charter schools. We didn’t have the quality control we should have had, and as a result, we have a lot of low-quality charter schools. We should have done a better job—making sure operators were good; quality was high.”  (You can listen to Taft’s comments here—at minute 53 in the broadcast.)

This year, the enormous difficulty of regulating charter schools in the public interest has centered in California. California’s original charter school enabling legislation, like the Ohio charter school legislation which Bob Taft now regrets, emphasized innovation and launched a new experiment. But it neglected strict oversight.  Los Angeles Times reporter Taryn Luna explains: “Charter schools in California are publicly funded and independently operated. Originally authorized in 1992 legislation to promote educational innovation, charter schools have evolved from an experiment to a system that enrolls more than 600,000 students across the state.  California ties education funding to enrollment, and charters have often been pitted against traditional neighborhood schools in a competition for students.”

Capital & Main‘s Bill Raden is more blunt.  He sees this year’s battle to regulate California’s out-of-control charter sector as an attempt to correct laws that, “created a California-sized test bed for the never proved, and now largely debunked ‘pure market’ education theories of radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman.”

After months of fierce debate pitting school teachers and public school supporters against the lavishly funded California Charter Schools Association and an even more conservative group, the Charter Schools Development Center, a deal for modestly improved oversight of the charter school sector was reached at the end of August. The deal was formally enacted by California’s state legislature last week. Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond personally brought the two sides together to broker the deal.  The deal won’t rein in some of the most outrageous California charter school authorization practices,  described in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, but at least it will provide  local school districts some control over the charters which elect to operate there.

The Los Angeles Times and EdSource report the details of the new regulations. The agreement provides that school boards can reject new charter school petitions based on the fiscal impact the new school will likely have on district public schools. The plan requires all teachers at charter schools to be fully credentialed. Until now California law has required full credentialing only for teachers of core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies—but districts could hire non-credentialed teachers for the arts and foreign languages.  Under the new agreement, if a proposed charter is refused by the local school district, the charter sponsor may appeal to the county board of education, but appeals may no longer be made for the state to overrule the local school district, except in cases where the local school board is said to have abused its discretion or acted arbitrarily. Charter schools in California will now be evaluated according to the same rating system as the state’s public schools, and the new law makes it at least somewhat easier to shut down academically or financially unsound schools.

There remains concern that the new plan incorporates broad principles, but that it may spawn litigation as it is implemented.

Impetus for the new regulations grew intense this year, especially during teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, where teachers exposed the dire conditions in their public schools, conditions created to a significant extent by the fiscal impact of charters on the public schools. In an academic study, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrated conclusively that the growing charter school sector sucks essential dollars from the public schools—students carrying so much revenue out of the public system that the public districts can no longer maintain core functions required by law without increasing class sizes to unmanageable levels and slashing the number of nurses, counselors, librarians, and enrichment programs.

Demonstrating that in Oakland, charter schools suck $57.3 million from the public system each year, Lafer explains: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

A new study, State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students, also demonstrates that in addition, charter schools in California—just as in other states—educate fewer special education students and far fewer students with severe disabilities.  Diane Ravitch summarizes the conclusions of the study: “The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment (of disabled students) is 11% compared to more than 14% in public schools.  Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate…  In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services.  One celebrated charter in Oakland… known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%.  The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% students with disabilities.”

While California has now taken steps to establish minimal oversight of its charter school sector, nobody believes the fight is over. The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter Howard Blume predicts that the new regulations will only continue to fuel what has been a long and lavishly funded political battle: “A major agreement aimed at setting stronger standards for charter schools stands to intensify power struggles for seats on the Board of Education in Los Angeles, setting the stage for more contentious and costly election battles between charter advocates and allies of the teachers union, a cross section of education leaders and experts said… In Los Angeles, school board elections already were the most expensive in the country—as the influential teachers union went head-to-head against better funded pro-charter school groups seeking a controlling majority on the seven-member body. A record breaking $17 million was spent on three 2017 board races, including nearly $10 million in District 4, where charter-backed Nick Melvoin defeated union-backed school board president Steve Zimmer… The stakes are especially high in Los Angeles, where close to 20% of public school students attend 224 charters, more than any other school system in the nation.  Currently, the board is closely divided on many issues affecting charters, but leans toward tighter restrictions… The agreement between the teachers unions and charter organizations announced by Newsom…represents the biggest revision to state charter law since it was first enacted in 1992, when charters were widely viewed as a niche experiment to foster innovation. They have since become a central education reform strategy, often with wealthy backers and foundations propelling their growth. In Sacramento, there’s been a decades-long stalemate over charter regulations….”

While I agree with Howard Blume that the battle will continue, I am concerned about his and other reporters’ framing of the fight as a simple political battle between lavish backers of charters and teachers unions. Charter schools were created everywhere without any real understanding of the urgent need for public regulation in a system where millions of tax dollars would be flowing into the coffers of entrepreneurs. There is a lot of money sloshing around in the charter sector, including the for-profit charter management companies making big profits from the non-profit charters they are paid to manage. Across the states, this money has flowed generously into the campaign coffers of the state legislators—the very people responsible for public oversight.  California has also seen huge investments in this battle from neoliberal ideologues—Eli Broad, a California native, and additional out-of-state money from the likes of Michael Bloomberg.

In California and across the states, teachers unions represent the people closest to the students in the public schools. Their members provide the primary source of funding to support and promote public education.  On the unions’ side in this battle are also the researchers like Gordon Lafer in the report described above, and Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker, who has also demonstrated that out-of-control charter school expansion is catastrophically undermining the public schools not only in Los Angeles and Oakland, but also across the United States.

California demonstrates all the reasons why it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Embracing Public Schools as the Very Definition of the Common Good

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest 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. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

New Ohio Report: Cupp-Patterson Plan Creates Adequate School Funding but Must Be Corrected for Equity

Ohio’s legislature will soon hold hearings on a new, much touted, desperately needed, bipartisan school funding plan. The plan was developed and proposed by Rep. Robert Cupp (R) and Rep. John Patterson (D), and has now been formally introduced as House Bill 305.

Ohio’s current school funding formula is so dated and so badly underfunded that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts are currently either capped or on guarantee; they have been receiving from the state just what they got last year and the year before and the year before that.  The new Cupp-Patterson plan was designed to flip that situation and restore the awarding of formula-calculated funding to at least 510 districts.

The new formula was developed to establish a base cost per enrolled student, an amount which every district would receive through combined state and local funding. Everybody agrees that the new formula would begin to create an adequate funding floor.

But huge concerns have arisen since last spring when the formula was first announced. Once the computer runs were released to show how the new formula would treat each of the state’s 610 school districts, it became apparent that many of the state’s very poorest districts—especially poor urban districts with concentrated poverty and rural districts—would end up with meager funding increases, or, in some cases, no additional funding at all, while some of the state’s wealthiest exurban school districts would receive huge increases in state funding.

While the new Cupp-Patterson Plan produced an adequate school funding floor, it failed to achieve equity. Part of the reason is obvious: the outer ring suburbs are rapidly growing, and a higher per-pupil state funding system will add funding as students move to a school district. But until now, nobody has clearly explained what is causing the proposed formula to deny additional funding to the state’s poorest school districts—three of them currently being punished by autocratic state takeover, ten of them threatened with state takeover, and Cleveland under its own form of state supervision.

Last week, however, Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance since the early 1990s, published a report for the Ohio Education Policy Institute to evaluate the proposed Cupp-Patterson formula.  In his new paper, Fleeter dissects the history and complexity of the state’s foundation formula along with the history and complexity of the way the state calculates categorical funding—the special funds the state awards to school districts in addition to basic aid for special services—special education, gifted, English learners, transportation, career-technical, and students in poverty.

Fleeter’s paper is extremely technical.  Even as a non-expert reads the new report, however, what becomes clear is that the very complexity of the calculations and the choice of particular factors has disadvantaged the state’s poorest school districts.

One Problem with the Foundation Base Cost Calculation

Any school funding formula is comprised of a state contribution and a local contribution which together add up to a base cost amount. The purpose of the formula is to deliver additional state aid to school districts whose fiscal capacity is lower. While he affirms much of the way the basic aid formula is calculated, Fleeter criticizes one area of the calculation. His concern is the way community median income is being used to calculate the local contribution to the formula. The proposed formula considers the size of the school district’s property tax base and also measures community income as a proxy for the community’s capacity to pass local operating levies.  The assumption here is that wealthier voters will more easily be able to afford to vote for tax levies.

The proposed formula measures income through a complicated calculation called local capacity percentage which is based on median income. Fleeter explains that the way the tiers are set fails entirely to distinguish high income from very poor communities. Fleeter provides an example: “Northern Local School District in Perry County has a median income of $41,826 while Orange City School District has a median income of $93,421 (more than twice as much), and yet both have the same local capacity percentage, which is clearly inequitable.”  The Northern Local School District in Perry County is the extremely poor rural school district where the DeRolph school funding equity lawsuit originated.  Orange City School District includes the very wealthiest communities in Cuyahoga County—greater Cleveland.

Problems with the Calculation of Categorical Funding

Fleeter also considers the mass of calculations which determine categorical funding levels, and he devotes much of his analysis to the way the proposed formula treats the school districts which serve a large number or a concentration of students living in poverty. Ohio’s current formula fails to support these districts even as the state punishes them with punitive measures—most notably state takeover.  Fleeter believes Ohio needs to assist these school districts with significant additional resources: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”

In an appendix, Fleeter traces a history of state funding problems for school districts serving children in poverty: “The following points provide a summary of the main issues relating to funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio:

  • For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

Fleeter examines several reasons why the new school funding plan does not solve the problem.

Historically, the state directed assistance to school districts serving very poor children with what was called Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid—later replaced after the DeRolph litigation with Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid. In a series of calculations, Fleeter demonstrates that under the new Cupp-Patterson plan, the total of $987.3 million for these two programs, “would still be 20.3% below the actual FY 19 post-cap funding levels for Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid.”

In the first place, the targeting of funding for disadvantaged students is part of the plan’s six-year phase in.  Over the period of the phase in, school districts would not receive all of the money until the whole plan were fully phased in. “Additionally, the state average base cost amount would increase to $7,190 in FY 20 under the Cupp-Patterson plan. Thus, the per-pupil amount of economically disadvantaged funding received in FY 20, even if there were no phase-in, would only be 25.6% of the new base cost.”

Problems with the proposed formula also derive from the way it counts students for Targeted Assistance. The plan uses overall enrollment instead of Average Daily Membership to calculate Targeted Assistance. (Overall enrollment counts students in charter schools and students receiving vouchers.)  The substitution of overall enrollment for ADM affects the mathematical calculation, making urban districts look wealthier than they actually are. Changing the method of counting students deprives school districts of millions of dollars annually.  For example, Cleveland would lose $27.6 million from the amount of Targeted Assistance it currently receives; Columbus, $27.1 million; Dayton, $21.0 million; Toledo, 19.1 million; Youngstown, $13.54 million; Cincinnati, $11.4 million; Lorain City, 10.1 million; Euclid, $4.7 million; Lima, $4.0 million; and Mansfield, $3.0 million.

Fleeter comments “When providing testimony in support of their plan, members of the Cupp-Patterson work group explained the above outcomes by saying that the number of students educated in the district is in fact the more appropriate measure for determining wealth than is the number of students who live in the district. While this is certainly true for the calculation of an input-based base cost measure, it is less clear for a measure that is designed explicitly to help less wealthy districts keep pace with their wealthier neighbors in providing educational opportunities for their students. Moreover, regardless of the theoretical merits of one student count versus another for making a per-pupil wealth calculation, the funding impact was clearly that high poverty urban districts lost so much revenue from Targeted Assistance under the initial Cupp-Patterson proposal that most of them ended up on the guarantee or with much smaller revenue increases than did the wealthier districts in the state.”

Again and again, Fleeter emphasizes the urgent need for the state to address the needs of school districts serving concentrations of poor children. He castigates legislators for proposing a formal study of the needs of students in these school districts but failing to fund such an investigation: “Finally, HB 305 would direct the state to undertake a study of the true cost of educating economically disadvantaged students in Ohio. Such a study has never been undertaken in Ohio. The final version of the FY 20-21 state budget did include a provision directing the Ohio Department of Education to oversee such a study; however, no funding was earmarked for this purpose. The state needs to be encouraged to find a way to fund and complete these studies in the FY 20-21 biennium.”

MGT Consultants: Profiting from the School Crisis in Gary, Indiana and Taking Over Three Colorado School Districts

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.

In a blog post on Monday, Diane Ravitch warned: “Colorado be very afraid.”  She is commenting on a decision by the state board of education in Colorado to hire a for-profit education management company to take over three school districts which Colorado’s state board has deemed “troubled.”

Ravitch is writing about an article from Sentinel Colorado, which explains: “As Colorado school districts struggle and fail to raise student test scores in schools with entrenched problems, they’re turning to private companies to fix public schools, for millions of dollars. Some critics question whether at least one of those private companies is qualified for the job based on their track record in another state and their close ties to what some say are anti-public schools alliances.”  The three districts are to be taken over by Florida’s MGT Consulting.

Sentinel Colorado‘s Grant Singer explains: “Leaders of the Florida-based MGT say they specialize in allocating public money more effectively while improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom and school culture. Its management process includes sub-contracting areas of school work to other companies, and it boasts completing over 10,000 projects in many states and abroad over several decades… MGT’s current chief executive officer also co-founded a consulting and lobbying firm tapped into a national network of for-profit education institutions, Republican education reformers, the testing industry and charter schools. That’s part of what draws controversy as public school academia question the motives of a company headed by pro-school voucher officials working to save failing public schools—for profit.”

Colorado state school board members praised MGT’s record in the so-called turnaround of the only whole school district it has managed—for the past two years—in Gary, Indiana.  The fact that MGT Consulting, a for-profit, was praised for work in Gary caught my eye. I have been to Gary, just as I have been to Detroit, whose public schools have shared some problems with Gary’s. Detroit’s school district was assigned a state emergency fiscal manager by former Governor Rick Snyder; in fact Detroit’s school district was assigned an emergency manager named Darnell Earley after he left Flint, where, as municipal emergency fiscal manager, he had permitted the poisoning of the city’s water supply. Fortunately Detroit’s schools have been turned back to the democratically elected local school board, which hired a professional educator, Dr. Nikolai Vitti.  And I have been to the cities in Ohio now in state takeover, and being operated by appointed Academic Distress Commissions. I am thinking of Youngstown, which in four years under an Academic Distress Commission and appointed CEO, has not turned around. I am thinking of Lorain, where outright chaos has ensued under an Academic Distress Commission’s appointed CEO, David Hardy. And I am thinking of East Cleveland, whose schools are just beginning the state takeover process, and ten other Ohio school districts—including Dayton and Toledo—being threatened with state takeover.

All of these Rust Belt cities and their school districts are characterized by economic collapse. They are industrial cities where factories have closed and workers moved away to seek employment elsewhere. When industry collapses, the property tax base—the foundation of the local contribution of school funding—evaporates, and as workers lose jobs or leave, local income tax revenue collapses as well.

The northwest Indiana reporter for WBEZ News in Chicago describes what happened in Gary and how economic collapse has affected the city’s public schools. Writing in February of 2017, WBEZ’s Michael Puente explained: “In December, the school board voted to close Jefferson and two other school district facilities at the end of the academic year to save money.  It’s just the latest cost-cutting effort for a district drowning in red ink. By June, Gary’s accumulated debt is expected to reach $101 million.  In the last two years, Gary has had to close six buildings amid declining enrollment, dwindling tax revenue and competition from public charter schools.  The school system is struggling to make payroll each month. It delayed checks to 700 employees, mostly teachers, in November.  March is also likely to be a problem.” After describing faltering attempts by members of the Indiana Legislature to pass legislation to assist Gary’s schools, Puente adds: “But none will fix two of Steel City’s greatest problems: industry decline and population loss.  Since 1970, some 100,000 residents—almost half the city’s population—have left Gary. Only about 77,000 remain… Gary has been bleeding jobs, especially at the steel mills, for decades. Big employers like U.S. Steel are still around, but its workforce has shrunk over the years. And, the huge steel facility can’t produce fat property tax checks for the local school system because a decade-old state property tax cap limits how much the Gary schools can collect.”

In July 2017, the state took over the school district in Gary and turned the schools over to a private, for-profit management company: MGT Consultants. MGT hired Peggy Hinkley, a retired school superintendent to run the schools, but she resigned a little more than a year later. The Post-Tribune‘s Carole Carlson describes Hinkley’s tenure: “Hinkley served 14 months and ruffled the feathers of some elected officials who criticized her decisions, especially the closing of the Wirt-Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts. When Wirt-Emerson closed in June (2018), it left the district with just one high school, the West Side Leadership Academy. It stoked fears of a continuing exodus of students who would leave for charter schools or other districts… Under Hinckley, Gary reached a deal resolving $8.4 million in back payroll taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS forgave a large portion of the debt, leaving the district with a $320,000 payment. The freeing up of the liens on buildings allowed Hinckley to list 33 vacant schools and properties for sale.  By November, the district had accepted five offers, amounting to $480,000. More sales are still being weighed. In all, Hinckley erased about $6 million of the district’s $100,000 million in long-term debts and reduced its monthly deficit from about $1.8 million to $1.3 million… Academically, all seven elementary schools received Fs on state report cards this year.”

Clearly, in Gary, Indiana, MGT Consultants has not miraculously achieved the kind of quick school district turnaround Colorado’s state school board bragged about when it contracted with MGT to take over three school districts.

And in the background there is also a troubling possible conflict of interest. You may remember that Tony Bennett was the elected state school superintendent in Indiana back when Mitch Daniels was the far-right Republican Governor. Tony Bennett left Indiana in 2013 to go to Florida, where he became the Florida school commissioner, but he resigned (also) in 2013, when it was discovered that, as Indiana’s state superintendent, he had secretly raised the state’s rating of a charter school whose operator was a mega-donor to Indiana’s Republican campaign coffers.

After he left Florida, Tony Bennett became a private consultant and, according to a second article by Carole Carlson of the Post-Tribune, “a partner in the Strategos Group, a Florida company, which acquired MGT Consulting three years ago.  As a result of the acquisition, Bennett became a member of MGT’s board of directors.”

The relevant issue of Bennett’s serving on MGT’s board when the state of Indiana hired MGT to run the Gary Schools is that Bennett worked assiduously with then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to expand Indiana’s statewide private school tuition voucher program and to enable more charter schools—a vigorous school privatization venture that has further undermined enrollment in and funding for the public schools in Gary.  Carlson explains that back when Tony Bennett was the state school superintendent in Indiana, “then Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett led an education reform overhaul that expanded charter schools and launched a vigorous voucher program that gave tax dollars to private schools.  Critics say those policies nudged Gary on its downward spiral.”

Chalkbeat Colorado‘s Yesenia Robles describes the cozy, school-reformer-privatizer connections that may have contributed to the hiring of MGT Consultants to run Gary’s schools.  After all, Colorado is claiming it has chosen MGT Consultants to run three different school districts based on the company’s track record in Gary. Robles doesn’t draw any firm conclusions about the red flags this ought to to have raised among officials in Colorado who hired MGT to manage the three school districts the state has taken over, but she does raise the red flags: “In Gary, the state ordered an emergency manager to come in not only for academic problems, but because the enrollment decline and fiscal management problems landed the district deep in debt. MGT took over the responsibilities of the superintendent and the school board, at the state’s request and reports directly to state officials. The work has been controversial. Some lawmakers called for removing the firm when it was discovered that Tony Bennett, who was state superintendent in Indiana from 2008-2013, is a partner in the Strategos Group, which acquired MGT in 2015. Lawmakers argued that the policies Bennett rolled out in his time as state superintendent contributed to Gary’s financial problems that led the state to require an external manager.”

The Post-Tribune‘s Carlson reports that as of the end of 2018, MGT Consulants’ contract to manage Gary’s school district has reached $10 million.  MGT Consultants stands to make big profits in Colorado as well. Sentinel Colorado‘s Stringer provides details—for example, in MGT’s contract to manage the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City: “MGT’s work in Commerce City will net almost $8.4 million plus up to $1.7 million in incentives for improving the district scores and ratings…. In the first two years of its contract, the group can earn from $300,000 to $400,000 each year for improving test scores at different grade levels and for meeting achievement marks. In the last two years, MGT could make up to $400,000 each year for earning the district and individual schools gains in state ratings, even for bumps to levels below meting standards. The Commerce City district does not have a superintendent nor a chief financial officer and will likely not fill both positions… MGT will manage the more than $150 million in district spending, almost all state and federal dollars.”

My own experience has not familiarized me with the school districts which have been turned over by the state of Colorado to the for-profit MGT Consultants. But when I read about state legislatures and politicians in Rust Belt states taking over school districts and appointing emergency fiscal managers and academic distress commissions and CEOs with unlimited power to make changes without consulting locally elected officials or engaging the local community, I wonder why the democratic process seems always to be abridged in the school districts which serve the poorest children of color. In Gary, I wonder why a for-profit consultant is raking in millions of dollars to cover for the state’s failure to help the school district after the surrounding economy collapsed. The economic tragedy in a place like Youngstown or Lorain or Benton Harbor or Dayton or Gary demands the active engagement of state and local government officials on behalf of the public good and the welfare of the children.