ECOT Tries to Hold On to Over $60 Million in Tax Dollars It Collected for Phantom Students

The Ohio legislature is in the midst of its lame duck session—the opportunity for lawmakers to do something about the outrageous scam at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  And today, according to Plunderbund, Senate Bill 3, an omnibus education law with 29 amendments is to be introduced in the House Education Committee.

A big question is whether the legislature will do anything at all about regulating the out-of-control online charter sector. Here are some of the issues, according to Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, who explained last week that, “ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school, has lost a court appeal that would have blocked the state from trying to ‘claw back’ as much as $65 million the school received last year…”  ECOT—which hasn’t been keeping accurate log-in attendance records, and which has claimed that the state requires it merely to provide 920 hours of instruction for the 15,000 students the school claims it educates but not to require its students to actively use the materials for at least 20 hours per week—took the state to court earlier this year to try to block the state’s crackdown on its massive reimbursement for phantom students. ECOT has lost in court at every turn as it has appealed its case, but the school’s leaders are shameless in demanding that the state continue paying the school for the students it claims, without proper records, are enrolled.  Its total tax-dollar reimbursement is currently over $100 million, but the state wants ECOT to return over $60 million.

O’Donnell reports that now in the legislature’s lame duck session, “The schools are asking state legislators to add a ‘hold harmless’ provision to another bill in the next few weeks to stop the state from using attendance reviews of the schools to take millions of dollars of state funding away from them.”  O’Donnell describes the pressure being brought on ECOT’s behalf by Neil Clark, Ohio’s most powerful Republican lobbyist, who represents ECOT and who alleges that “the Ohio Department of Education ‘created new rules for e-schools and then applied the new rules retroactively.'”

Last March, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown introduced a bill to try to establish oversight of charter school enrollment.  In a press release he declared: “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.” Schiavoni’s bill would have required e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It would have required the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days.  It would have required that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation.

There was always a very dim hope that wisdom and the relentless exposure by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch and the Akron Beacon-Journal might have pressured Ohio’s lame duck legislature to consider Schiavoni’s bill, but it was sidetracked last summer to the Senate Finance Committee by the Senate leadership in an attempt to get around a sympathetic Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee. In Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature, Senator Schiavoi’s sensible bill will die at the end of the legislative session.

Now as December begins, with only a couple of weeks left in the lame duck session, ECOT and its fellow online schools are begging to avoid the threatened claw-back of their funding for this year, because they say they were not properly warned of the new regulations that kicked in last winter.  After all, the problem is more widespread than ECOT. O’Donnell reports: “The state also ordered Provost Academy in Columbus to repay $800,000 after finding that it had the equivalent of just 3 full-time students, not the 160 it had claimed. And it found that Akron Digital Academy could not document 80% of its students and that the Buckeye Online School for Success could not document any of its 900 students.”

Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch reports that as the e-schools are trying to pressure legislators to save their funding, ECOT’s hearing before the Ohio Department of Education—the one the school has attempted repeatedly to block in court—began yesterday.  The department is meeting with representatives of the online schools as they continue trying to appeal the department’s ruling earlier this year.

Like O’Donnell, Siegel has wondered whether ECOT’s demand for a one-year hold harmless might be added as an amendment to another bill—perhaps to the already highly amended omnibus Senate Bill 3.  When he posed the question to Republican leaders in the House, “(B)oth (Andrew) Brenner, (chair of the House Education Committee) and Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, said they do not expect to add proposals that have not already been heard in committee as separate bills. Asked specifically about help for e-schools, Rosenberger said, ‘We’re not going to be seeing anything like that.'”

Siegel believes, however, that Andrew Brenner will still try to figure out how to waive this year’s claw-back of taxpayer funds from the e-schools. Andrew Brenner is a “nonvoting member of the state Board of Education,”  who has told Siegel: “I’m going to be talking to the board president and a couple of others to see what we can do to at least get us through this last school year, and then maybe we can have a permanent fix going forward… Brenner said his key concern is that even if the state Department of Education is legally authorized to ask online schools to provide more detailed login durations to justify enrollment figures, state officials should not have implemented the policy in the middle of the school year… It would have been more reasonable, Brenner said, for the department to warn schools this year, and then start docking their funds next year if enrollment could not be verified by login durations.”

Notice that Brenner’s focus is protecting the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Remember that legislators have have been encouraged to consider ECOT’s well-being through political contributions from ECOT’s operator William Lager. As columnist Brent Larkin declares in the December 4, Plain Dealer: “Ohio is saddled with a damaging reputation as home to some of the nation’s worst charter schools. Worse yet, none of this seems to bother the state’s legislative leaders, whose breathtaking incompetence and corruption prevent them from angering their campaign contributors by making the tough decisions needed to improve the state’s educational standing.”

Brenner doesn’t seem to care that funding for Ohio’s massive unregulated online charter school scam is being sucked out of the state’s education budget and that Ohio’s way of funding charter schools even steals back money from local school districts’ levy funds.

This blog has covered the long-running scandal of Ohio’s failure to regulate ECOT here.

Betsy DeVos: School Choice, the Establishment Clause, Religious Liberty, and Public Education

According to Benjamin Wermund of POLITICO, the religious views of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, are closely connected to her philosophy of school choice.  Wermund shares a transcript and video clips of a 15-year-old interview in which Dick and Betsy DeVos attribute their promotion of school choice and privatization through publicly funded school vouchers to their Christian values and their desire to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Betsy DeVos explains: “We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition—there were more choices for people to make freely—that all of the schools would become better as a result.” Wermund continues: “However, the DeVoses also say public schools have ‘displaced’ the church in terms of importance.” Wermund quotes Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, who was also part of the interview: “The church—which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community.  It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment—whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be—that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”

In the interview, Betsy DeVos is asked why the DeVoses have not spent their philanthropic dollars to support religious schools themselves.  She replies that they, “want to reform the whole system to bring ‘greater Kingdom gain… We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases… not well spent.'”

Despite that in the 2002 decision in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the use of publicly funded vouchers at religious schools as long as the voucher is given to the family and not directly to the school, endorsement by government of religious institutions is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.  Provisions in a number of state constitutions also explicitly reject the expenditure of public dollars for sectarian institutions, including for tuition vouchers and tuition tax credits.

Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion , and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.

Despite that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, seems to have other views based on her own Christian beliefs, the principles of the First Amendment have been endorsed by religious people throughout our history.  America’s major religious denominations have strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.

In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13):

  1. “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
  2. “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
  3. “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
  4. “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The communities of faith that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Many religious organizations have passed strong resolutions to affirm their support of public schools that honor the First Amendment principle of religious liberty. Some have even formally opposed providing publicly funded vouchers for students to attend parochial schools. I must clarify Wermund’s commentary in one important respect: Dick and Betsy DeVos’s beliefs, as Wermund describes them, represent neither the views of all Calvinist or Reformed Protestants nor the policy resolutions of their communions.

Here is the statement passed in 1999 by the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches: “Although many of the member denominations of the National Council of the Churches of Christ have issued statements supportive of public education, and although the NCC itself has made its pro-public schools stance clear for several decades, in recent years the voices of our churches have been largely absent from the ongoing debate about the meaning and future of our nation’s schools.  As a result, public consciousness has been dominated by religious and political groups whose view of public schools is largely negative.  With this statement we propose to bring the voices of our member churches back into the present debate, bringing with us our traditional support for…  strengthening… the public schools… While we acknowledge and affirm the contribution of private schools to the welfare of children and the nation, public schools are the primary route for most children—especially the children of poverty—into the full participation in our economic, political, and community life.  As a consequence, all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have a moral responsibility to support, (and) strengthen… the public schools… Just as we encourage schools to ensure that all religions are treated with fairness and respect, so we urge parents and others to refrain from the temptation to use public schools to advance the cause of any one religion or ethnic tradition… We… caution that government aid to primary and secondary religious schools raises constitutional problems, and could undermine the schools’ independence and/or compromise their religious message.”

Later in 2010, the over-sixty members of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches voted to adopt a pastoral letter that was sent to the President, the U.S. Secretary of Education and members of Congress.  The NCC Governing Board’s pastoral statement declares: “As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children… We support democratic governance of public schools.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right. On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the marketplace, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.”

Several decades ago, in a 1985 pronouncement, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ—the denomination where I staffed work in public education justice from 1998 until 2013—more explicitly rejects the use of publicly funded vouchers to pay students’ tuition in religious and private schools: “We defend the right of parents to choose alternative, private, religious, or independent schools, but continue to declare that those schools should be funded by private sources of income.”

Although very often we take the basic principles of civics for granted, we need to be able to articulate clearly and concisely what the First Amendment is about.  The purpose of this post has been to review the basic principle of religious liberty and to clarify that Betsy DeVos’s views on religion and public education are extremist; they not shared by the American religious mainstream.

Major New Report Shows that Charters Are Too Often Parasites Weakening Host School Districts

On Wednesday, The Economic Policy Institute published a comprehensive report by Rutgers economist Bruce Baker, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  Reviewing Baker’s report for The American Prospect, Rachel Cohen explains that Baker speaks to the very question that became central in the $34 million political fight that just concluded in Massachusetts, where Question 2—to expand charter schools statewide—went down to resounding defeat.  Opponents of unregulated expansion of charter schools defeated Question 2 by asking: How will charter school expansion affect all of the children including the children who remain in traditional public schools?  Usually instead promoters of charter school growth make their argument based on a very different question: How will expanding charter schools affect the test scores of the relatively few children who leave the public schools to enroll in charter schools?

Cohen reports on her interview with Bruce Baker about his new report: “Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative, that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.  In an interview with The Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis.”

In the new report, Baker questions the economic viability of the charter school model based on what is now 25 years of experience with school choice: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Baker grounds his argument in some history: “Since its origins in the early 1990s, the charter school sector has grown to over 6,500 schools serving more than 2.25 million children in 2013.  In some states, the share of children now attending charter schools exceeds 10 percent (for example, Arizona and Colorado), and in select major cities that share exceeds one-third (for example the District of Columbia, Detroit, and New Orleans.”  The vast majority of America’s children and adolescents, 50 million of them, remain in the roughly 90,000 traditional public schools across the states. Baker examines the impact of charter school expansion on the host public school districts that serve the majority of students and that are being affected by the growth of charter schools within their boundaries.  “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”

Baker credits charter advocates like Paul Hill at the Center on Reinventing Public Education with envisioning a more collaborative “portfolio” model in which “a centralized authority oversees a system of publicly financed schools, both traditional district-operated and independent, charter-operated.” But competition, not collaboration, has come to dominate the expansion of charter schools: “A very different reality of charter school governance… has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources.  One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. “(S)ome of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid, unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker challenges claims by charter school advocates that the growth of charters has little negative effect on the fiscal viability of the host public school districts: “(N)umerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.” “(T)he assumption that revenue reductions and enrollment shifts cause districts no measurable harm… ignores the structure of operating costs and dynamics of cost and expenditure reduction.”  Baker reminds readers that for several years now, Moody’s Investors Services has been warning about a range of concerns for host urban districts when charters are rapidly expanded.

Choices made that ignore the needs of host public school districts are likely to create formidable barriers to turning back if, for example, “policymakers and the public at large tire of the recent wave of charter expansion.” Baker worries especially about the consequences as school districts lose students to charters and then respond by selling off underutilized buildings for the use of the charter schools: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests).  Increasingly, districts… have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker also worries about shifts in the teacher workforce that frequently accompany rapid charter growth—by which “the teacher workforce has been substantively altered from a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce to a temporary workforce… In some cases, the newly minted teacher workforce is dominated by teachers narrowly trained in specific ‘no excuses’ methods, as charter operators have expanded their reach into the granting of graduate credentials and certification of their own teachers….”

There are also concerns about the protection of students’ rights when schools have been privatized: “Rarely if ever considered in policy  discourse over charter school expansion is whether children and families should be required to trade constitutional or statutory rights for the promise of the possibility of a measurable test score gain.  In fact, the public, including parents and children, is rarely if ever informed of these tradeoffs and does not become aware until an issue arises… Children in low-income and predominantly minority communities are more likely to be asked to make these tradeoffs, while not being told what rights they are trading off.  Concurrently, taxpayers in impoverished, minority communities are disproportionately foregoing their rights to understand where the money goes, in the hierarchical public-private structure of charter schools in their neighborhoods, and increasingly losing control over long-held public assets including land and school facilities, while affluent suburban residents are not being asked to make similar tradeoffs.”

Finally, Baker slams the federal Charter Schools Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education: “The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes…. The federal government has also, through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense…. Federal funding for charter expansion generally, or for facilities acquisition, should be put on hold until better parameters can be established for ensuring that these funds advance systemwide goals and protect public interests.”

After voters in Massachusetts were educated about some of these tradeoffs, they voted, by an astounding 63 percent to 37 percent margin, to protect their public school districts. Under a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos—a pro-charter, pro-voucher, pro-competition ideologue—serving as Secretary of Education, it will be up to all of us to ensure that Bruce Baker’s well-documented concerns about the dangers of unregulated expansion of privatized education are better understood by the general public and by our state legislators and members of Congress.

Important Reading on Betsy DeVos

Today’s post is an update—some new tidbits and clarifications about the record of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Jennifer Berkshire on Betsy DeVos 

I encourage you to read Jennifer Berkshire’s fascinating commentary on Betsy DeVos’s role in the mess created by an out-of-control charter sector in Detroit. Berkshire explains how DeVos’ influence and money undermined a bipartisan effort to save the Detroit Public Schools: “It was out of… (a) spirit of hopefulness that the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren emerged back in 2014.  And it was a for real coalition.  AFT was there, but so was the (corporate) reform-minded Excellent Schools Detroit and the city’s pro-charter mayor, along with members of the corporate and civic elite.  People who’d been, if not at war, at deep odds, had finally gotten together around a single, shared point of agreement: if Detroit doesn’t have some way to oversee its schools—both what remains of the district schools and the fast-growing, completely unregulated charter sector—the city can forget about the future.  Bankrolled by a local philanthropy, the Skillman Foundation, the coalition had the wind at its back and the political wherewithal necessary to get a bill through the state senate, even gaining the support of Governor Rick Snyder…. But the feel-good story screeched to a halt last summer thanks to a wall of GOP opposition.  Except that “wall” and “opposition’ make it sound as though there were a whole bunch of people involved in the kneecaping that went down.  There was a single family: Betsy and Dick DeVos.  The bill that ultimately passed, with the DeVos’ blessing and with the aid of the lawmakers they bankroll, did virtually nothing to regulate Detroit’s ‘wild west’ charter school sector, and will likely hasten the demise of the Detroit Public Schools.”

DeVos PAC Still owes Ohio $5.3 Million Fine

The Columbus Dispatch and Politico have now clarified the role of All Children Matter, a PAC that favored school privatization and that was founded in 2003 by Dick and Betsy DeVos and formerly directed by Betsy DeVos—in a huge fine still owed to the Ohio Elections Commission after a 2006 violation. Here is Randy Ludlow for The Dispatch:  “The Ohio Elections Commission unanimously ruled that All Children Matter violated state law by illegally channeling $870,000 in contributions from its Virginia PAC to its then-unregistered Ohio PAC, violating a state law that restricts political action committees to accepting  no more than $10,000 from a single source… David Brennan of Akron, one of Ohio’s top charter-school operators and a top state GOP donor, gave $200,000 to the Virginia PAC before it funneled money to All Children Matter’s Ohio PAC.  Virginia imposed no limit on contributions to PACs.”

Politico describes what happened: “The state (elections) commission told POLITICO that DeVos’ group initially asked Ohio if this sort of spending was permissible.  When the state said no, DeVos’ group did it anyway. ‘I’ve been with the commission since 1996 and I’ve never had anyone else ask for an adivisory opinion and then proceed to not do what the opinion said,’ said Philip Richter, executive director and staff attorney at the Ohio Elections Commission.”

All Children Matter lost when it appealed the decision. Finally Ohio’s attorney general, “went to court in 2012 in a bid to collect the fine, receiving a $5.2 million judgment in 2013 from Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel T. Hogan.”  Hogan also fined All Children Matter’s Virginia PAC $25 a day, retroactive to October 26, 2006. The Dispatch and Politico agree that All Children Matter seems to be fading away and has inadequate assets to pay the fine.  At the end of 2015, the organization had only $275 in assets.  Betsy DeVos was never held personally liable.

Campbell Brown Says Her News Website Will Provide Objective Coverage of Her Good Friend, Betsy DeVos

Caitlin Emma reports for Politico Morning Education that Campbell Brown, the anti-teachers union crusader, will recuse herself from covering her friend Betsy DeVos on The 74, Brown’s website that pretends to be an objective news-reporting site on topics relating to education.

Emma explains: “Brown and DeVos are friends, and Brown sits on the board of DeVos’ school choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children.  (DeVos resigned as chair [of the American Federation of Children] last week after accepting Trump’s Cabinet offer.)  In 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation helped launch The 74 with a two-year grant—the amount of which wasn’t disclosed to Morning Education.”

Since President-elect Trump’s nomination of DeVos, The 74‘s coverage of Betsy DeVos has been largely positive.  Despite a more complex piece by Michael Petrilli, The 74‘s has printed a laudatory 2015 interview with DeVos and Campbell Brown’s own gushing commentary: “Social media attacks aren’t famous for accuracy, but it’s a pity that Betsy DeVos has been so misleadingly caricatured since Donald Trump asked her to serve as secretary of education last week… The suggestion that Betsy’s work with children is ideologically or financially driven would be disputed, I’d guess, by just about everyone who has spent time alongside her during the past 30 years as she founded, helped run and advised education groups and initiatives that have helped improve education across the country — including thousands of teachers and poor families.”  You’ll notice that the sole purpose of DeVos’s education work—privatization— is unmentioned in Brown’s effusive tribute to her friend.

Writing for Education Week, Mark Walsh comments: “The 74, the website founded by former TV journalist Campbell Brown, is in an awkward position when it comes to the site’s identity. Is it an independent education news and opinion site, as Brown, herself a supporter of school choice and teacher tenure reform, has maintained, or is it an electronic pamphleteer for DeVos and her causes?”  Walsh acknowledges that articles about DeVos posted at The 74 have contained disclaimers explaining DeVos’s financial connections and the fact that Campbell Brown serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, but despite the disclaimers, worries remain.

Yesterday Romy Drucker, CEO of The 74, tried to clarify further in a formal statement posted on The 74 website: “Two years ago, in 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation approved a two-year general operating support grant for The 74.  The final disbursement of those funds, in the first quarter of 2016, means that the foundation is an active donor only through the end of this year. Obviously, given Ms. DeVos’s potential role in the federal government, The 74 will not be seeking additional funding for 2017 or beyond.  In addition to The 74 having received support from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, my co-founder and the site’s editor-in-chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the board of the American Federation for Children, which Betsy DeVos previously chaired… Still, given Ms. Brown’s close ties to Ms. DeVos, she is recusing herself from editorial involvement in the coverage of Ms. DeVos and her upcoming confirmation hearing.”

This is, of course, a case of DeVos philanthropy not only underwriting the pro-privatization American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, which has lobbied for unregulated expansion of charter schools, but also granting the seed money for Campbell Brown to launch a news outlet that in subtle and obvious ways favors the very same education ideas that Betsy DeVos’s organizations promote—even while the news site pretends to be objective.

How Did We Forget That We’re All Stakeholders in the Public Schools

In the November election, by a startling margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, voters defeated Georgia’s constitutional amendment to allow the establishment of a state-takeover school district.  During the campaign as voters learned that the state would likely operate struggling schools through huge, private, charter management companies, they turned against the plan. It’s amazing that anybody except right-wing ideologues thought the Georgia Opportunity District was a good idea in the first place, but maybe until the campaign for Amendment 1 got under way, people were relatively uninformed. Unless we are teachers or parents, we may not be paying close enough attention to public education these days to understand the ins and outs of any particular school governance plan.  When was it that so many of us stopped really considering ourselves active stakeholders in the way our community educates its children?

Myra Blackmon, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, considers the role of the public in the defeat of Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District: “Liberals and conservatives, rural and urban residents, people of all races decided that a state takeover of local schools deemed poor performers is not a tolerable solution. At the same time, there was no ballot initiative that let people weigh in on exactly how they want to improve education.”  Blackmon explains that people gathered together when they were informed enough to fear a bad plan. She encourages people to stay engaged and work together to improve the schools that would have been turned over to the state: “Georgians have a unique opportunity to continue to work across partisan and demographic lines to address problems in schools that serve large populations of poor people in communities that often lack resources. There are several possibilities for this unusual alliance to continue its newfound influence.”

What kind of information did it take to get voters’ attention and defeat Amendment 1 in Georgia?  A fact sheet about state takeover school districts from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools provides some of the disturbing data about such districts that are already  operating in three states—Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee:

  • “Most schools, once absorbed by the state district, are converted to charters.  Although all 3 state takeover laws provided for other options, 107 of the 116 schools currently operating have been converted to charter schools.”
  • “Of the 44,000 students enrolled in these schools, 96% are African American or Latino.”
  • “Student results have not justified the takeovers. In Louisiana where the Recovery School District (RSD) is the nation’s first all-charter district, 41% of the schools received a D or F grade under the state’s accountability system. In Tennessee, student results under the Achievement School District (ASD) lagged behind those of students in schools that were being supported by the local district… In Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) 79% of students either showed no improvement, or lost ground on state assessments.”
  • Finally there is the issue of rapid turnover of teachers—in Michigan, a turnover rate of 50 percent in the first two years.  In Tennessee, after the first year, 46% of teachers left their jobs.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools instead prescribes some research-based reforms that are “consistently associated with stronger student outcomes”—all of them directed at improving the traditional public schools that serve the mass of our children: ensuring high quality early childhood and pre-K programs for all children; filling the public schools with experienced educators who collaborate; making sure all students have access to a broad, engaging and culturally relevant curriculum; creating a school climate that is safe, nurturing and respectful; engaging parents; and in poor communities, adding wraparound supports for children and families including health and social services and co-curricular enrichment for children. Most essential is ensuring opportunity by taxing ourselves to provide adequate school resources, equitably distributed.  The Alliance asks society to recognize its basic moral responsibility to provide what is necessary for children.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (see here and here) instead have a plan for privatization—different than Governor Deal’s idea in Georgia but even more devastating.  They say they will redirect federal funds away from the public schools to create block grants for states to expand vouchers and charter schools. Instead of supporting the public institutions that serve over 90 percent of our children across the United States, they say they will use federal dollars (and leverage the reallocation of state dollars) to help children “escape.”

Last night I heard a TV news broadcaster mispronounce Betsy DeVos’s name and, without any comment on her agenda for the Department of Education, merely dub her a minor Cabinet nominee. What will it take from those of us who actively support public education to make sure everybody cares enough to learn that Betsy DeVos is a powerful, wealthy philanthropist who has spent millions and millions of dollars over a lifetime promoting the destruction of public education in the name of privatization and marketplace school choice?  Those of us who value public education will need to make sure far more citizens are paying attention. We will need to mobilize around the idea that public education matters. Public schools—publicly funded, publicly owned and publicly accountable through democratic governance—are the institutions best able to serve the needs of all kinds of students and the only institutions that can protect their rights.

Historian Assesses Attorney General Nominee, Jeff Sessions’ Civil Rights Legacy

In case you missed it over the holiday weekend and amidst all the press about President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education,  you might want to check out Thomas Sugrue’s column about Jeff Sessions.

Thomas Sugrue, a 20th century urban historian, won the Bancroft Prize in American History in 1998 for The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  A passage from Sugrue’s preface to the book’s 2005 Classic Edition demonstrates the depth of Sugrue’s grasp of the role of race and inequality—subjects deeply connected to the rise of Donald Trump and to Jeff Sessions, about whom Sugrue will tell us more in a few moments.

Sugrue’s specialty is race and inequality in the North. In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he explains: “Despite more than half a century of civil rights activism and changing racial attitudes, American cities (particularly the old industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest) remain deeply divided by race.  Poverty rates among people of color in major American cities are staggeringly high. Vast tracts of urban land lie pockmarked with boarded-up buildings, abandoned houses, and rubble-strewn lots. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of acres of marshland, meadow, farm, and forest on the periphery of major metropolitan areas get gobbled up each year for vast tracts of new housing, shopping malls, and office parks. City governments struggle with shrinking tax bases and ever-increasing demands on public services, while wealthy suburban municipalities enjoy strong property tax revenues, excellent public services, and superb schools.”  Sugrue defines three forces whose “combined effect… reshaped American cities in ways that still affect us today. First was the flight of jobs, particularly the relatively well-paying secure, and mostly unionized industrial jobs that dominated the postwar urban economy.  Second was the persistence of workplace discrimination despite remarkable legal and political gains accomplished by the struggle for black civil rights. The third was intractable racial segregation in housing, segregation that led to the uneven distribution of power and resources in metropolitan areas, leaving some places behind while others thrived.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis, pp. xvii-xviii)

While Donald Trump directed his campaign to mostly white small town and rural voters, the inequality and racial divisions Sugrue describes constitute the foundation for much of the resentment to which Trump appealed—including bitterness in and around metropolitan Rustbelt cities. The bigotry and anger the campaign encouraged created an opening for Trump to nominate a Southern racist to enforce our civil rights laws as Attorney General.

In last week’s column, Sugrue reminds us that Jeff Sessions was nominated by Ronald Reagan as a federal judge, although Sessions was eventually denied confirmation: “In 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee torpedoed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. As sworn testimony there revealed, Mr. Sessions, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, had referred to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… as ‘un-American’ and ‘Communist inspired.’  He had joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ‘O.K.’ until he discovered some of its members smoked pot, and had accused a white attorney who supported voting rights of being a race traitor.”

Sugrue traces Sessions’ racism much deeper than statements decrying civil rights organizations and extolling the Ku Klux Klan, however.  As elected attorney general in Alabama during the 1990s, Sessions did his best to kill school funding reform that would have expanded educational opportunity for Alabama’s poorest children—most of them African American: “(B)y the early 1990s, huge disparities in funding separated Alabama’s haves and have-nots. Alabama’s wealthiest school district (and also one of its whitest), Mountain Brook, in suburban Birmingham, spent nearly twice as much per student as the state’s poorest, Roanoke, in a declining manufacturing town about two hours southeast.  Poor schools often lacked even rudimentary facilities, including science labs. They struggled to pay teachers, even to repair dilapidated school buses. Half of Alabama’s school buildings lacked air conditioning.  Underfunded schools had a particularly hard time meeting the needs of disabled students, whom they were required to support under federal law.”

After a lawsuit was filed by 30 plaintiff school districts and a number of civil rights and disability advocacy groups, Judge Eugene W. Reese found Alabama’s system of funding schools unconstitutional and demanded a remedy.  As Alabama’s Attorney General, however, Jeff Sessions led the fight against equalizing school funding.  “Mr. Sessions was lauded by fellow Republicans for his efforts. They saw funding inequities as part of the natural order of things, not as a problem to be remedied. Any remedy would entail either the redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer districts or an increase in taxes. Both positions run against the small-government, privatization dogma that Mr. Sessions promoted.”

Sessions used his position as Attorney General to launch his campaign for the U.S. Senate, but eventually Judge Reese’s decision prevailed in Alabama. The court, however, left it up to Alabama’s legislature to design what became the most minimal remedy.

Sugrue understands that institutional and structural racism can have even deeper consequences than words of support for the Ku Klux Klan and critiques of the NAACP: “Alabama’s public schools, still underfunded, still separate and unequal, ranked near the bottom nationally, stand as one of Jeff Sessions’ most enduring legacies.”

As Donald Trump becomes President, the deep and enduring structural issues Sugrue explores in The Origins of the Urban Crisis remain with us.  These concerns were hardly touched upon in the recent presidential campaign, despite Trump’s preoccupation with bringing back coal and some kind of fantasy about making big industrial manufacturing great again.

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Push Increasingly Discredited School Policy

While public schools across the United States are the quintessential institution of the Ninety-Nine Percent, for years now public policy has been driven by the ideas of the One Percent. Nobody exemplifies this ironic contradiction better than the woman nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as our next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She is the founder and chair of the board of the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, and she leads the All Children Matter PAC. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick lead the Great Lakes Education Project, the organization behind the massive growth of unregulated—and mostly for-profit—charter schools that are now known to have contributed to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. DeVos is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll describes the political influence of the Michigan DeVos family: “The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”

Here is Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: “(I)t would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than the DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard, Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures. In 2010, Charles Koch described Richard DeVos, Sr., as one of thirty-two “great partners” who had contributed a million dollars or more to the tens of millions of dollars that the Kochs planned to spend in that year’s campaign cycle.”

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are One Percenters, and both are proponents of the privatization of education —vouchers by which children carry tax dollars to pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. States and the federal government, pushed by far-right politicians and advocates like the DeVos family, have been trying out both forms of privatization since the 1990s, long enough that there is now a body of evidence to compare the performance of privatized schools to that of the local public schools and to see how their presence is affecting the school districts in which they are situated.

For example, University of Illinois professors of education Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researching the quality of mathematics instruction in public, private, and privatized schools, published a book (2014) demonstrating, that because public schools employ curriculum staff exposed to the best current research and because certified teachers are trained in up-to-date theory at teachers colleges, there is a Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage, pp xvii-xviii)

Even the proponents of school choice have begun raising questions. Robin Lake leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the organization that has made its name by promoting “portfolio school reform,” a theory that school districts ought to be managed as a business portfolio—shedding failing schools and opening new charters in an environment of perpetual market churn. Robin Lake went to Detroit in 2014 to observe how all this is working in the environment that has long been promoted by Michigan’s biggest charter school advocates—including Betsy DeVos. Here is how Lake described what she saw: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

And in Detroit, the DeVos family has helped ensure that charter schools remain unregulated.  Last May and June (2016) as the Michigan legislature worked on a plan to save the Detroit School District, made virtually bankrupt partly by the massive expansion of school choice, even Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed to the creation of a Detroit Education Commission as part of the plan.  The Commission’s role was going to be guiding the location of any new charter schools to ensure there remain quality schools in all of the city’s neighborhoods and to help regulate the worst charter schools out of existence. It seemed the plan would be approved  by the legislature until the DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project unleashed its lobbyists and $1.45 million in political contributions to members of the Michigan House, who then soundly eliminated the Commission from the Detroit Schools’ rescue plan.  Believing in the power of the market as the sole source of accountability, Betsy and Dick DeVos purchased the obliteration of meaningful charter school oversight in Detroit.

Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, has watched as the School District of Philadelphia has been undermined by the rapid expansion of charters, just as Detroit has suffered.  He explains: “Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of a charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools… The president-elect’s endorsement of a radical “school choice” agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.”

Even the bond ratings agencies have begun to consider the impact of the rapid growth of charter schools in big city school districts where rapid expansion of privatized charter schools has sucked money out of the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of children, and especially children in extreme poverty and those with expensive special needs.  Chicago and Detroit are two of the districts where bond ratings have recently been lowered, but more recently Moody’s has been writing about Massachusetts, where, on November 8, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have expanded charters. In a new report, Moody’s celebrates the statewide defeat of Massachusetts Question 2 and in doing so expresses concern about the kind of school privatization that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education have announced as their priority.  Shira Schoenberg describes Moody’s new report for the Springfield Republican: “Charter schools tend to proliferate in urban areas where school districts already reflect a degree of underlying economic and fiscal stress that can detract from a city’s ability to deliver competitive services and can prompt students to move to charter schools; this growing competition can sometime create a ‘downward spiral,'” the report stated. “A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses.”

Betsy DeVos has not always limited her school privatization activity to what is legal. Back in 2006, she helped David Brennan, owner of the notorious, privately held, for-profit, White Hat Charter School management empire to make an illegally large donation to the campaign coffers of Ohio legislators. On his personal blog, Steve Dyer, former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, describes what happened: “DeVos has a bad history here in Ohio. In 2006, she allowed David Brennan to launder campaign cash through her All Children Matter PAC. That led to the largest fine ever levied against a candidate or PAC by the Ohio Elections Commission — $5.2 million. By all accounts, that fine was larger than all fines put together.”

The Betsy DeVos nomination has received wide coverage by knowledgeable reporters. For excellent summaries, check out Kate Zernike in the NY Times, and Emma Brown and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.