Short, Pithy Video Graphically Critiques Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

We worry more about the widespread scandals in charter schools these days when we talk about privatization of public education, but voucher programs, begun in a big way in Milwaukee 25 years ago, have been steadily increasing in number across the states. In a  short, informational video, the Southern Education Foundation explains how private school vouchers and closely related tuition tax credits are robbing public schools across the states of the funds public schools need to serve all children.

I urge you to watch the video and send it to others. Watching it takes only a couple of minutes.

The graphic presentation shows where vouchers and tuition tax credits are popping up in state legislatures, summarizes the ways vouchers rob needed public funds, and defines lesser-known tuition tax credits as vouchers in disguise.

The Southern Education Foundation’s video emphasizes the growth of vouchers and tuition tax credits across the South, but they are popping up all across the United States.  The NY Times reports that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo included tuition tax credits in his state budget proposal, although the idea appears to have been dropped (for now) because Cuomo was unable to garner adequate support.  In Pennsylvania, Bobby Kerik, reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that there is currently bi-partisan support in both houses of the legislature for expanding two already-existing tax credit programs.  The first gives businesses “a tax credit—a reduction in actual taxes paid—if they designate money to any of 1,270 approved organizations with an educational component.” The second, the Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, gives tax breaks to businesses  for contributing money for “tuition assistance to students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school who wish to attend another school.”  The bill currently being discussed in the Pennsylvania legislature  would expand “the combined budget for the two programs from $150 million in tax credits annually to $250 million annually.”

Vouchers and tuition tax credits fund private and parochial schools while undermining the public system, which is more likely to distribute opportunity for all children, not just for some.  Although it is often assumed that private schools are accountable to the market, vouchers and tax credits support schools that may be neither transparent nor accountable. In a public system it is possible to pass laws to protect the needs of all groups of children including students learning English and children with disabilities and to protect children’s rights.

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains the difference theoretically: “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.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Watch this new little video.

The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Hillary Clinton’s Stark Education Policy Dilemma

What is Hillary Clinton to do about public education policy?  Clinton has close ties to New York, where opinions among Democrats on public education policy are perhaps more polarized than anywhere else in the country.  Public schools are the quintessential institutions of the 99 percent, but they are threatened in these times when the 1 percent seems to be able to dominate our politics.  As this blog described last week, New York is the epicenter of this conflict. In New York, hedge fund tycoons from Wall Street seem to have successfully pushed Governor Andrew Cuomo to support charter school funding, blame school teachers, and threaten what he has begun calling “government monopoly schools.”

Consider the Main Street needs in a place like Gloversville, New York, a place like so many Northeast mill towns that saw better days a long, long time ago.  Gloversville is upstate—past Albany, Schenectady, and Amsterdam and almost on the border of Adirondack Park.  Described in an article in yesterday’s NY Times, it is a faded town, trying to raise enough money to fix up and modernize its Carnegie Library, built in 1904. Gloversville, which used to produce 90 percent of America’s dress gloves, has lost its industry and even been forced to close its swimming pool and city recreation department.  But Richard Russo, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of novels like Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and Mohawk, grew up in Gloversville, and he has agreed to chair a campaign to raise enough money to rehabilitate the public library.  In a recent speech, he declared: “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”

The contrast between Gloversville and Wall Street captures the dilemma for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who is expected to win her party’s nomination for President.  Hillary has a residence in New York and formerly represented that state in the U.S. Senate.  On Tuesday, the NY Times devoted an article to what promises to be the dilemma for Hillary on education.  Reporter Maggie Haberman explains: “Now, as she prepares for a likely second run at the white House, Mrs. Clinton—who largely avoided domestic policy when she was secretary of state—is re-entering the fray like a Rip Van Winkle for whom the terrain on education standards has shifted markedly, with deep new fissures in the Democratic Party.  Already, she is being pulled in opposite directions on education.  The pressure is from not only the teachers who supported her once and are widely expected to back her again, but also from a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies—charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing—that the teachers’ unions have resisted throughout President Obama’s two terms in office.”

Haberman paints Clinton’s dilemma as between her allegiance to her friend Randi Weingarten (and the American Federation of Teachers) and one hedge fund PAC in New York, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  But it’s not so simple.  In New York support for attacks on teachers and privatization of schools goes way beyond DFER to the much bigger hidden donor organizations—New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany and Families for Excellent Schools, which has spent millions on several occasions during this year for the “Don’t Steal Possible!” TV advertisements that trash public schools and promote charters.  Haberman is correct, however, that Clinton faces polarization in New York and across the country as prominent Democrats have become starkly divided on education.  Supporting an agenda dominated by school closure, promotion of charters and privatization, and student-test-based evaluation of teachers—a philosophy once promoted by Republicans like President George W. Bush and governors like Bobby Jindal (LA), Scott Walker (WI), John Kasich (OH), Rick Snyder (MI) and Bruce Rauner (IL)—is a growing group of business-friendly Democrats like President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Rahm Emmanuel (mayor in Chicago), and Andrew Cuomo (NY).  In New York alone, business interests have invested buckets of money in getting Cuomo to support their interests such as Success Academy Charters and attacks on public school teachers.  Juan Gonzalez recently reported for the NY Daily News—in an article titled, Hedge Fund Executives Give ‘Til It Hurts to Politicians, Especially Cuomo, to Get More Charter Schools—that, “Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers have shelled out nearly $40 million in political contributions in New York State…. The single biggest beneficiary has been Andrew Cuomo, who received $4.8 million from them.”

In a long piece on big money buying policy among Democrats in New York, George Joseph of The Nation magazine reports: “Cuomo has banked his gubernatorial legacy on a budget that would again fail to meet the state’s public-school funding requirements, instead increasing the privatization of New York’s education system and weakening New York State’s once powerful teachers’ union, NYSUT.  Cuomo’s education reform proposal would tie 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student test scores, based on a controversial practice called Value-Added Modeling, drastically weaken teachers’ opportunity for tenure, expedite the firing of teachers, make room for a hundred more charter schools, and promote state takeover of ‘failing’ (or poor) school districts—a tactic that has been used to expand charter school growth without the consent of elected school boards across the country.  In his 2014 re-election bid, Cuomo declared that as governor he would work to enact long-term measures to ‘break’ public education, which he called ‘one of the only remaining public monopolies.’… The consensus that New York public schools do not require more funding is curious, given the landmark 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling and subsequent statewide resolution ordering the state to correct its inequitable school funding formula…”

Joseph describes the lavish expenditures of hedge fund interests as buying influence in Albany: “In the 2014 election cycle, no two groups dominated Albany more than the pro-education reform Families for Excellent Schools (FES) and the anti-tax Super PAC New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany.  Cuomo’s policy proposals come straight out of FES’s playbook… This rapid purchase of this influence is unprecedented.  As Capital New York reported, last September and October alone Families for Excellent Schools spent nearly $2.9 million, more than doubling the previous spending record for that period and making ideas like a 50 percent test-based teacher evaluation suddenly conceivable… Families for Excellent Schools will have spent $13.4 million in 2014, the largest single-year lobbying spree in New York State history.”  “It is almost certain that Families for Excellent Schools and New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany are funded and organized by the same small network of people: the same nine New York hedge-fund billionaires.”

Joseph summarizes the results: “From a purely business standpoint… such cost-effective education reform proposals do make sense for the hedge-fund community, especially given the alternative education reform option: the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools, as mandated by the state’s highest court in 2007.  Low-income New York school districts haven’t received their legally mandated funding since 2009 and the state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion…. Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.  As a recent Hedge Clippers report pointed out, the hedge-fund community has achieved these gains over the last decade and a half by buying political influence and carving out absurd breaks and loopholes in the New York state tax code.  Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers and top executives have poured $39.6 million into the campaign coffers of New York state politicians.  Thus, despite New York’s progressive reputation, its school-district funding-distribution system is actually one of the most regressive nationwide, similar to that of states like Texas, North Carolina and Missouri.”

Whose interests will Hillary Clinton support when it comes to education?  I hope she will listen to the wisdom expressed by Richard Russo as he tries to raise money for the renovation of the public library in the upstate community of Gloversville:  “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”

Cyber Security: Can We Protect Kids’ Privacy?

Last week this blog covered the brouhaha in New Jersey, when a school superintendent was notified by Pearson that a student had posted information on Twitter about a question on the electronically administered PARCC Common Core test.  A couple of days after the story broke in New Jersey, Stephanie Simon, Politico‘s top education reporter, explained that we shouldn’t be surprised: “But Pearson is hardly the only company keeping a watchful eye on students.  School districts and colleges across the nation are hiring private companies to monitor students’ online activity, down to individual keystrokes, to scan their emails for objectionable content and to scrutinize their public posts on Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instgram and other popular sites.  The surveillance services will send principals text-message alerts if a student types a suspicious phrase or surfs to a web site that raises red flags.”  Companies and the school districts that hire them are not only scanning for cheating on standardized tests, but also looking for signs of bullying, threats of violence, and indicators of depression.  Simon reports that a dozen states have passed laws to try to curtail such activity, “But such laws protect only accounts marked as private.  Many kids post publicly to build up their online followings.  And when they do, companies with names like Social Sentinel, GeoListening, Varsity Monitor and UDiligence are there to read them.”

Emma Brown of the Washington Post reports that the issue very likely emerged into public view last week because of the way the Common Core exams are being administered—the same test given in several states on a staggered schedule.  “It used to be that all students across a state took a paper-and-pencil test on the same day or days.  Now children are taking the same Common Core tests in multiple states during a period lasting longer than a month.  That has created a more intense test security problem for K-12 standardized exams.”  Security is also increasingly complicated when students are using computers—and even taking home computers—owned by their school district.

In the House of Representatives, Reps. Luke Messer (R-IN) and Jared Polis (D-CO) are circulating a draft bill, to be introduced early next week, that they say will curtail such surveillance of students and increase student privacy.  While the law’s sponsors say it is intended to ensure that data collected by monitoring students will be used only for educational purposes, in a follow-up article for Politico, Stephanie Simon reports, “The bill lets education technology companies continue to collect huge amounts of intimate information on students, compile it into profiles of their aptitudes and attitudes—and then mine that data for commercial gain.  It permits the companies to sell personal information about students to colleges and employers, and potentially to military recruiters as well…”  It wouldn’t stop what is happening when students use educational programs created by education software companies: “And every time a student clicks through an online textbook, watches tutorials, plays games or takes quizzes online, he sheds an enormous amount of data, not just about what he knows but also about how he learns, thinks and perseveres in the face of challenge.  Top ed-tech companies boast of collecting millions of unique data points on each child each day.  That’s orders of magnitude more than Facebook or Google gather on their customers.  And most of that data isn’t protected by existing federal privacy law because it’s not part of a students’ official ‘educational record’…”

Simon reports that while many people believe Messer and Polis’ bill would at least prevent companies’ using personal information to advertise to students and would require that ed-tech companies delete data within 45 days if a school were to request it, the bill is filled with loopholes.  For example, data companies could continue to sell students’ data if a parent or the student requests that it be shared—even by checking off a box on the test itself: “An online textbook, tutorial service or gaming app could likely fulfill this requirement by asking kids to check a box if they want to hear from colleges or employers interested in students just like them.”

The problem is that most of us don’t even know how to think about what feels like spying on kids.  Anya Kamenetz, reporting for NPR, interviews privacy experts who suggest several specific issues to consider: “SECURITY   My child’s information will be stolen and misused by hackers… TRANSPARENCY   My child’s information is being collected, stored and shared, but I don’t know where or by whom or why… COMMERCIALIZATION    My child’s information will be used to target online advertising or otherwise exploited for commercial gain… REPUTATION   My child’s information will be ‘out there,’ discoverable in the ether somewhere…”

Even if Messer and Polis’s bill is passed by Congress, nobody thinks it will be a final or permanent solution.  What does student privacy and security mean in our online world?  How much can we control?

Poverty, Inequality, Blocked Opportunity, and the No Child Left Behind Reauthorization

In a recent analysis at the California website Capital & Main, Bill Raden reflects: “It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools.  The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.  Yet three decades later, and in spite of the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.  But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?  That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.”

“What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?”  It is the essential question, especially this year as Congress once again considers the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act, whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a version that folded teacher bashing, punishing struggling schools instead of helping them, and privatizing schools into the law of the land.  But the news is not new to researchers, who have for some time been reporting evidence that refutes such an assumption. Test-and-punish school reform, long supported by politicians, has been exhaustively questioned over the years by academic research.

Raden interviews Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, the husband and wife directors of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield tells Raden, “I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts, and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school.  The schools actually made as much progress each year as the (wealthier) kids did, but the gap never closed at all.  So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”  Gandara adds, “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development.  We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.'”

Orfield has been confronting the strategies embedded in NCLB for many years, as have other researchers at the Civil Rights Project, whose April 2009 study by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman came to the same conclusion.  In the forward to that report, Orfield wrote: “Now, as the country thinks about what to do next, it is important to focus on some fundamental design problems with the NCLB that undermine its very important goal of increasing the equity and success of American schools.  The first is that it was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality or the possibilities and conditions necessary for reform work.  Instead, NLCB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014.  The second problem is that it often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school.  The third is that it has a very narrow definition of education that not only diverts attention from other vital goals but also produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success in those limited areas.  The fourth is that all schools are being required to attain goals that are impossible to attain on any broad level…. At the same time, the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”

Academic research has continued to document the trends that have been known since James Coleman conducted research in the 1960s that identified students’ poverty and segregation as challenges to academic achievement.

In Public Education Under Siege, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  In 2013, the Southern Education Foundation documented the poverty concentration across America’s cities:  “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.” Low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children also make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.  In Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) Thomas Timar, a professor at the University of California at Davis explains: “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education:  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty…. Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990…. Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…. In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” (p. 232)  In America’s large cities many children live in extreme poverty, that is half the federal poverty line, which is around $11,925 for a family of four. Children in such circumstances are very likely to struggle at school. The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores have always served in large part as a wealth indicator. According to a chapter by Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (Oxford University Press, 2013): “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income—with the rich living near each other in wealthy enclaves and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documented in 2011 research that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

There is one exhaustive new book that connects the dots between poverty, inequality and school achievement.  In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015) Robert Putnam asks: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”  (p. 182)

In Reign of Error (Knopf, 2013), Diane Ravitch’s indictment of the education “reform” movement, she wonders why, with the enormous mountain of evidence that we must help poor children with poverty and segregation, we persist in assuming the problem can be fixed by punishing teachers: “Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix’ schools first? It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty… The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence.  It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children.  And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control. ” (pp. 92-98)

Once again, the Congressional debate about reauthorizing NCLB seems to be falling apart.  I think this is probably a good thing.  There is no agreement about reducing test-and-punish. The civil rights community, alarmed by the continuing racial achievement gap, is understandingly demanding that someone be held accountable—-through continued annual testing and disaggregated reporting, and Congress seems ready to accept that test-and-punish must continue.  Congress seems at the same time poised to push for a continuation of austerity budgeting by extending the sequester that would cripple our federal government’s capacity to do anything at all about addressing poverty.  While the data about what’s wrong isn’t new, there is a massive consensus among the experts about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Politicians Create Fiscal Crises As Excuse to Cut Essential Services

In a recent NY Times column, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman describes the Republican budgets recently proposed in both houses of Congress: “Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar ‘magic asterisk’—a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from…  And the question we should ask is why. One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue…. But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation… What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class…. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer…  Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”

Budget proposals at the federal and state level are really abstract promises, and by the time they don’t work out as promised, months or sometimes years have passed.  Apart from keeping up the outrage, it’s hard for most of us even to remember what was promised by whom, and how the math was supposed to work out.  What we are left with is cuts in our local schools, which we are likely to blame on the local school board because these folks we know are easier to blame.  The fact is, however, that austerity budgeting through the federal sequester—which will be coming up again this year—and through state budget cuts is causing us to lose the services we value in our communities.

Krugman, for example, points out in that same column that the Republican budget proposals now in Congress result in, “savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies.  Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance.”  And as this blog frequently reminds you about public school funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit.” “Adding to states’ struggles, federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.”

To understand how this is working out in practice, you have only to look at Kansas, a fiscal disaster in process where Governor Sam Brownback has created a fiscal crisis by slashing taxes.  Because public education funding is always a big line in the state budget (State constitutions make states responsible for what is usually about half of public education funding.), when state budgets collapse, public schools are inevitably hurt.  Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week‘s “State EdWatch” columnist, describes what just happened in Kansas: “The Kansas Legislature has approved a plan to end the state’s current K-12 funding formula and replace it with block grants, a move that would also cut general state aid to public schools…. That would mean Kansas spending on schools would no longer take into account districts’ enrollment, demographics, or transportation needs.  The idea to shift K-12 spending into block grants was initially proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is dealing with one of the more serious budget crises in the nation.  At the start of the year, the state faced a $280 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year (fiscal 2015) and a $436 million shortfall for fiscal 2016, after the governor signed significant tax cuts into law earlier in his tenure.  Brownback advertised the block-grant proposal as a way to increase spending flexibility for districts, although local K-12 officials are not pleased with the $51 million in expected state aid that they would lose for fiscal 2016 under the plan.”

Ujifusa adds that the situation in Kansas is complicated by the finding of a lower court last December that the state’s K-12 school funding was already (before the new block grant reduction) “inadequate from any rational perspective.”  The 3rd Judicial District Court ordered the state to increase spending per-pupil from $3,852 to $4,654, which would add $548 million in state aid as a remedy for long-standing inadequate school funding.

Don Hineman, a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives notes in his legislative update that although the school funding formula is scheduled to be rewritten during a two year period while the block grants are in place, “During the floor debate on the bill I observed that we were being asked to tear the school funding formula out of the statute book, crumple it up, throw it away, and replace it with a blank sheet of paper which someone will fill in later. In my opinion that is a tremendous gamble.  It is a gamble for rural schools which may never again see weightings for low enrollment or transportation.  It is a gamble for schools with large numbers of students in poverty if the at-risk weighting ceases to exist.  And it is a gamble for districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students if that weighting goes away.  The bill was put on a very fast track which I frankly view as an abuse of the legislative process…  It is revealing that the only proponents of this bill in the committee hearing were the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and Kansans for Liberty.  These are the same groups who have testified this session against any proposals to raise taxes to fill the state’s fiscal deficit, claiming that any hole in the budget should be filled via budget cuts.”

It is reassuring that on March 17, Kansas’ Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed an appeal asking the Kansas Supreme Court to review December’s lower court ruling that Kansas’ level of state funding for public education was, prior to being cut again by $51 million in the new block grant law, already unconstitutionally low.

You very likely do not have children in the public schools of the state of Kansas, but Kansas is an emblem of what is being proposed in budget after budget across the states and by Republicans in budgets already proposed in both houses of Congress. Conservatives always say tax cuts will pay for themselves, but when they inevitably don’t pay for themselves, the solution is always reducing essential services rather than restoring taxes—which may have been the intention from the beginning.  As Paul Krugman asked in his recent column: “Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence.  But please try.”

Ohio House Avoids — So Far — Serious Attempt to Regulate Charter Schools

Last week Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor, a Republican in an all-Republican state government, wrote a fascinating op-ed piece in the Columbus Dispatch, a commentary that explores the kind of accountability his office is supposed to monitor.  He reflects on accountability for public and private agencies:

“There’s a messy place where the public and private meet, and the old ideas about accountability aren’t good enough to sort it out… Lawmakers here and elsewhere are deliberately blending the two—and it seems to be the trend, not the exception.  So, when an entity is a little private and a little public, which rules apply?”  Yost describes simple contracting-out—of janitorial services, for example—and continues, “On the other hand, if Brave New World, Inc., contracts to be the police department for your town… well, that’s a different story.  Brave New World is no longer simply selling services; it is functioning as the government… it is exercising the sovereign power of the state—and Brave New World probably ought to be subject to the traditional transparency requirements we impose upon our government.” Yost is a Republican who strongly endorses what he calls the efficiency of private companies, and he concludes: “The ongoing debate over charter-school reform is going to happen smack in the middle of this disorganized space in our pubic life.  How do we protect the public interest while harnessing the best qualities of a mostly private-sector actor?”

I am delighted to know that our state auditor is so deeply reflective about his responsibilities.  My concern, however, is that he neglects to consider an important factor at work in our state’s charter sector: the most powerful charter interests are operating for-profit, and they are heavily investing in buying influence among the legislators who are responsible for writing the laws to regulate their for-profit operations.  Bill Batchelder, term-limited out at the end of December after serving as the speaker of the Ohio House, for example, turned up by February as the lobbyist for William Lager, founder of Ohio’s most notorious virtual charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a charter school whose operations are contracted out to two private firms owned and operated by William Lager. Lager is known to have been contributing generously to Republican legislators’ campaign coffers for years now.

It is partly due to Dave Yost’s influence as a conscientious auditor that the Ohio House Education Committee has been considering a bill to improve and increase public oversight of Ohio’s “wild, wild West of charters,” and it is probably due to the influence of William Lager and David Brennan of the equally notorious White Hat Management that the bill as it was amended this week by the House Education Committee fails to impose the kind of oversight the public deserves.

Yost’s concerns, as the state auditor, are primarily about financial transparency and oversight.  The bill coming out of the House committee this week will make some strides toward the most rudimentary transparency.  Stephen Dyer of Innovation Ohio reports, for example, that if the bill passes as amended, contracts between charter school boards and the management companies they hire will now be required to be  posted on the website of the Ohio Department of Education.

There are some significant improvements in the bill as it was passed out of committee this week.  According to Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer, “Poor charter schools can’t ‘hop’ from one sponsor to another if a sponsor, the organization responsible for making sure they do a good job, cracks down on them…. To make conflicts of interest known the bill requires members of charter school boards to disclose if they have any family members or business associates doing business with the school.  Charter School sponsors receive three percent of a school’s revenue to monitor the school, advise it and make sure it meets standards.  The bill would require sponsors to report annually how it spends that money.” “The bill prohibits charter school sponsors from selling goods or services to the schools they oversee.”

The bill originally required the charter school’s board to hire the treasurer and prohibited permitting the sponsor to hire the treasurer.  Unfortunately, an amendment accepted by the committee permits the school’s board to vote annually to waive this requirement, which was inserted in the original bill to prevent the kind of conflicts of interest that currently exist when treasurers represent the interests of the management companies.

The amended bill, according to the Legislative Services Commission, “Requires monthly financial and enrollment reports to be sent to school operator as well as sponsor and school’s governing authority.”  Why the legislature would not require these reports to be sent to the Ohio Department of Education and posted on the Department’s website remains deeply troubling.  Another important amendment would permit the Ohio Department of Education to close the sponsors whose schools continue to fail year after year.

But many specific reforms recommended by state auditor Yost in testimony before the committee (A link to Yost’s testimony appears in this Plain Dealer article.) in February were not included in the new regulations that appear in the amended House bill passed out of committee this week.  Yost suggested that charter schools must have the kind of attendance requirements that prevent the state’s paying for students who fail to show up.  He asked that there be some kind of oversight to ensure that students in “blended learning” situations where they study on computers are really experiencing guided learning and not just spending time on computers.  He strongly recommended that students enrolled in on-line schools must be identified by name, not merely by ID number, to prevent one student’s being counted by several on-line schools by being assigned several ID numbers over the years and the state’s paying for that student to attend all of the schools at which the student appears to be registered.  He recommended that the state prohibit the upfront investment of state dollars in a school building by a charter management company; realty companies owned by charter management companies, he said, should not be using tax dollars to acquire real estate.  Finally, Yost suggested financial operations of charters must be made transparent, especially in schools now operated through broad “sweeps contracts” by which a charter school board turns over 90 percent of a school’s revenue to a management company without any public record of how the money is spent.  Records of charter school expenditures of public dollars, he said, must be made available to the public.

In the past couple of weeks reports have continued to surface about Ohio charter school abuses that would not be touched by the new regulations.  Plunderbund released dropout data for the state’s public and charter school districts.  While the overall Ohio high school dropout rate has been reduced from 24,564 students in the 2010-2011 school year to 15,857 in the 2013-2014 school year, the dropout rate at ECOT has grown from 3,143 in the 2010-2011 school year to 4,367 in the 2013-2014 school year.  “For the 2013-2014 school year, the number of dropouts from ECOT represents 27.5 % of the total number of dropouts in the entire state of Ohio.”

And the Columbus Dispatch reports that last year charter schools across the state spent tax dollars adding to more than $5.6 million to advertise.  “The Dispatch reported last week that the state’s largest charter, the online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, spent $2.27 million last school year on ads, or about $155 per enrolled full-year student.  That accounted for about 40 percent of the total charter-school ad spending reported to the Ohio Department of Education, dwarfing what any other individual school or district spent.”

The regulations being considered by the Ohio House don’t touch the kind of abuse of the public interest described in these two reports.  Neither has any public body in Ohio considered regulating the quality of educational programming in our state’s charter schools.