Trying to Sort Out All the Concerns about Charters and Vouchers

After today, this blog will take a two week summer break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 11.

I recently spent far too much time slogging through the over 80 pages of the new report on Charter Management Organizations from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Stanford CREDO is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. The study compares test score gains in four types of charter schools—the independent, stand-alone, charters; the charters run by Charter Management Organizations (that operate “at least three separate charter schools and the CMO is the charter holder for each school”); what CREDO calls Vendor Operated Schools (organizations which operate “at least three separate charter schools, but do not hold the charter for any school they serve”); and finally what CREDO calls hybrids (that “have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS).  After trying to sort through all these definitions plus the over 70 pages of data, I was underwhelmed by the conclusions: that students in independent charters have lower achievement, overall, than those that are part of a network; that charter quality varies by networks; that even though there is a range of CMO quality, “larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students”; that CMOs which directly operate their schools seem to do better than VOSs that bring in a vendor to manage the charters; that there is a need for better oversight by authorizers; that there is huge variation by state based on the kind of oversight the state provides; and that virtual-online charters don’t work for most students.

Although I certainly don’t recommend that you look at CREDO’s new report, you will likely find Jeff Bryant’s response to it as refreshing as I did.  While CREDO seeks to distinguish CMOs from VOSs from Hybrids from Independents, Bryant begins with a different distinction, necessary because he believes there is a lot of confusion about charter schools: “Quick,” he asks, “is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?”  His question is followed by this profile of a chain of charter schools:

“In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic. Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school. The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple.  In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.  After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 2012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located….”

Bryant continues: “If you guessed that the school in question… is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong.  The charter described is the BASIS charter chain….  Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and (is as) self-serving as any profit-hungry private enterprise….”  Bryant goes on to examine some other chains of charter schools to make his point that slicing and dicing and analyzing the operation of various types of charter schools isn’t really very helpful. In all kinds of privately managed schools there is self-serving and fraud that nobody seems to be able to get under control.

How to sort out the claims about school choice—Betsy DeVos’s one favorite subject?  This blog will take a two-week summer break after today, but if you want to clarify your thinking about school choice—charter schools and the various forms of vouchers—here is some important material to read or review.

  • Start with yesterday’s analysis by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a critique of charter schools that appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Burris reminds readers that a year ago the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights group, passed a national resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held accountable like other public schools, until funds stop being diverted from the public schools that serve the majority of our children, until expulsions from charters are stopped because publicly funded schools are supposed to serve all children, and until charters stop increasing segregation. Burris concludes that the charter sector has not even made a pretense of trying to address any of these very legitimate concerns. Charters remain unaccountable—more like businesses than public institutions, but, “Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers… (P)romised accountability is often st aside.”  Burris examines the other concerns in the NAACP’s resolution and concludes: “It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution… There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.”
  • You might want to read Erica Green’s recent NY Times piece on the charter school Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, founded in Grand Rapids—the West Michigan Aviation Academy. This school equips at least some of its students with pilots’ licenses at graduation. But there’s a catch: Dick DeVos’s Aviation Academy depends on enormous financial support and fund raising by Dick and Betsy DeVos in addition to the public school dollars it receives from the state of Michigan: “Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding… But… (the public funds do) not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum… The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.”
  • Or consider Mikhail Zinshteyn’s report for California’s EdSource, Oakland Charters More Likely to Enroll Higher-Performing Students than District Schools. How is it that, while charter schools are always prohibited from using admissions tests or other screens to select their students, they somehow end up enrolling students who arrive at the school door already better prepared than the students who attend traditional public schools in the district in which in which they are located?  Zinshteyn explains that Oakland’s charters actually do enroll similar levels of low-income students and English learners, but they also enroll far fewer students who arrive after the school year has begun and significantly fewer students with disabilities.  Both groups of students are more likely to be academically behind.
  • While the CREDO study and the Oakland study review charter school quality based on the comparison of test scores between traditional public schools and charter schools, there have been several important studies in the past year that examine the impact of school choice on the entire educational ecosystem in particular metropolitan areas where the majority of students, with very few exceptions, attend traditional public schools: Gordon Lafer’s study on Los Angeles (see this blog’s coverage here), Roosevelt University’s study on Chicago (see this blog’s coverage here), and Bruce Baker’s in depth study of parasitic charter schools published by the Economic Policy Institute (see this blog’s coverage here).  All of this in-depth research points to collateral damage for big-city public schools and school districts—including school closures, the under-supply of schools in some neighborhoods and the over-supply of schools in others, for example—- when charter schools are rapidly expanded.
  • It’s also worth re-reading the resources in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 toolkit on privatization. Two of the short issue briefs explore the concerns covered in this post today: Are Charter Schools Truly Public Schools? and Do Charter Schools Profit from Educating Students?

Of course Betsy DeVos’s definition of school choice features a two part expansion of school privatizaton: more charters and more vouchers (and neo-vouchers like tuition tax credits and education savings accounts). You might want to check out the resources here for more on vouchers:

  • Be reminded that the Network for Public Education ‘s 2017 toolkit on privatization also contains important updates on vouchers and neo-vouchers here, here, here and here.
  • Consider Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s new Education Week commentary on vouchers: Student Vouchers Aren’t Working. Here’s Why. The Lubienskis—academic researchers on the effects of school privatization and authors of The Public School Advantage—examine new research on voucher programs in Washington, D.C, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.  They note that, “While vouchers appear to be enjoying a higher profile with Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, the research on outcomes from these programs has taken a dramatic turn, one at odds with the direction DeVos and other policymakers are pursuing.”  Why do the new studies track lower achievement in voucher programs than traditional public schools?  A likely explanation “has to do with the actual students and schools themselves, including how students were grouped in private and public schools.  Prior to the recent batch of research that has cast doubt on vouchers, studies lauding vouchers tended to be based on local and more targeted programs involving relatively small, non representative sets of students and schools. Yet overall, private schools are actually no more effective, and often less so than public schools… Research as far back as the Coleman Report in 1966 indicates that private school students enjoy the beneficial ‘peer effect’ of being around affluent classmates who have abundant educational resources at home and parents who have firsthand experience with school success… This peer effect is a significant factor in student learning, but frankly, there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around.  And so as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted.”
  • Finally, this week there is important news: the Education Law Center is launching a new Voucher Watch website, “an initiative to inform and assist advocates as they oppose the establishment and expansion of vouchers in their states. Voucher Watch… will track voucher proposals in state legislatures and from the federal government, provide details on existing state voucher programs, and compile research on the impact of vouchers on student outcomes.”  The Education Law Center, which has for many years been a national leader in legal challenges aiming to increase school funding equity and adequacy, recently provided pro bono legal assistance in a Nevada voucher case—  Lopez v. Schwartz—“which resulted in a Nevada Supreme Court decision finding ESA (education savings account) vouchers unconstitutional because they diverted funding allocated for the public schools to private education expenditures.”  The site is brand new, with only one page of background about vouchers so far, but the new website will grow.  What’s wrong with vouchers? The Voucher Watch website declares: “(V)ouchers drain critical resources from public education, thereby undermining the capacity of the public schools to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those at-risk or with special needs. Vouchers also lead to increased segregation within our communities, and private schools accepting vouchers do not have to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Even with this compelling evidence, states continue to propose laws to create or expand vouchers, and Congress is considering using federal education funds to incentivize states to do so.”

Trump-DeVos Department of Education Cuts Back Civil Rights Enforcement

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) appears to be retreating from aggressive civil rights enforcement when complaints are made. When such complaints were filed during the Obama administration, the OCR examined three years worth of data from the school district where the complaint had been filed to try to uncover any systemic pattern of the violation of students’ rights. The Office of Civil Rights under Betsy DeVos now says it will expedite the processing of complaints by responding only to the individual complaint itself.

ProPublica explains the shift in enforcement strategy in a report released last week: “Under the Obama administration, the department’s office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment.”

ProPublica describes the new enforcement policy as described in a recent memo sent by Candice Jackson, DeVos’s acting secretary for civil rights, to regional OCR directors. No one has been nominated for full-time assistant secretary for civil rights, a position that would require confirmation by the Senate. ProPublica summarizes the new enforcement policy: “The office will apply the broader approach ‘only’ if the original allegations raise systemic concerns or the investigative team argues for it… As part of the new approach, the Education Department will no longer require civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.”  ProPublica continues: “The department’s new directive also gives more autonomy to regional offices, no longer requiring oversight or review of some cases by department headquarters….”

Candace Jackson has defended the new enforcement policy as designed to resolve cases more quickly and eliminate a backlog of long-running investigations. Reporting for the NY Times, Erica Green explains that many civil rights advocates worry that shallow investigations will fail to uncover injustice: “But civil rights leaders… say that Education Department staff members would be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness.”

Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, now leads the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a watch-dog, independent agency without enforcement power, that advises Congress and the President about civil rights concerns.  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights “launched a two-year investigation into civil rights practices at several federal agencies under the Trump administration, including the U.S. Department of Education.” Other federal Departments targeted by this investigation are Justice, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development.

Klein explains: “When it comes to the Education Department, the commission is concerned that Trump’s budget calls for slashing staff at the office for civil rights by 7 percent, or 46 full-time employees. The commission worries that this could lead to an ‘untenable caseload’ of 42 cases per staff member.”

The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown also reports that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has withdrawn guidance issued during the Obama administration guaranteeing transgender students the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. Candace Jackson has “directed its lawyers to consider transgender students’ discrimination complaints on a case-by-case basis.”

Brown describes one staff person at the OCR who remains confident that the new guidance will not reduce protections for transgender students: “One OCR employee, who was not authorized to speak to media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the memo was a ‘green light’ to move forward with discrimination complaints from transgender students—including those concerning bathroom access.”

However, Brown interviews GLSEN’s executive director, Eliza Byard, who is more skeptical: “But what happens if a transgender student’s complaint is handled by an official who does not believe bathroom access is an issue worthy of investigation?”

In a follow-up article, Emma Brown reports that the Department of Education has now closed two cases involving transgender students: “Officials withdrew the findings of discrimination, (Candace) Jackson said, because those findings were based on guidance that directed schools to allow transgender students access to bathrooms matching their gender identity  The Trump administration rescinded that guidance….”

We Can Only Wish that Politicians Would Learn a Lesson from Sam Brownback’s Failed Tax Cutting

It’s budget season. At the federal level, Congress will soon consider the President’s proposed 2018 budget. And many states are up against a June 30th deadline: the end of Fiscal Year 2017 and the deadline for approving a new budget. Yesterday’s post examined the catastrophic programmatic implications of President Trump’s federal budget proposal. Today the focus will be a little different— taxing policy at the state, not the federal level, and the tax slashing that continues to underpin much budgeting in 2017. Please continue reading; I promise this post will not be overly technical.

Much of the talk about state taxing policy these days relates to what just happened in Kansas. Both houses of the Kansas Legislature had voted to overturn several years of Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cutting and at the same time to eliminate a special taxing innovation that reduced business taxes on pass-through income. Governor Brownback, whose dedication to tax cutting is undeterred, vetoed the Legislature’s big tax increase. But two weeks ago, the Legislature—both houses dominated by Republicans—overrode Governor Brownback’s veto. Since Gov. Brownback initiated his experiment with tax cutting, Kansas has fallen into a fiscal crisis, and its public schools had suffered from lack of funding. Earlier this spring, the state’s supreme court had presented an ultimatum to the Legislature: improve school funding by June 30, or school will not open in September.

Brownback has called his tax cuts a real life experiment in supply-side economics. His hypothesis? That the state’s economy would thrive because everybody would be drawn to low-tax-Kansas to open businesses. Explosive economic growth, he predicted, would follow the tax cuts.  Here is Michael Tomasky, writing for the NY Times about how the experiment turned out: “Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending…. The taxes were cut, and by a lot. The cumulative cut was forecast to be $3.9 billion by 2019… The cuts came. But the growth never did… The experiment has been a disaster… Finally, even the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality.”

Tomasky traces some of this back to Grover Norquist: “Republicans are not supposed to raise taxes, ever. In Washington or in the states. This goes back to President George H.W. Bush’s agreeing to a bipartisan tax increase in 1990 after famously saying in his 1988 campaign, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’  Afterward, the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist, started making Republican candidates for Congress and state houses sign a no-tax pledge. Ever since, with scattered exceptions, no Republican member of the House or Senate has voted for a tax increase. For 27 years. If you wonder why problems arise and Congress never does anything about them, the tax pledge is usually the answer, or at least an answer.”

Paul Krugman, the economist and NY Times columnist, calls supply-side tax slashing a “zombie” policy idea: “(T)he term refers to policy ideas that should have been abandoned long ago in the face of evidence and experience, but just keep shambling along. The right’s zombie-in-chief is the insistence that low taxes on the rich are the key to prosperity. This doctrine should have died when Bill Clinton’s tax hike failed to cause the predicted recession and was followed instead by an economic boom. It should have died again when George W. Bush’s tax cuts were followed by lackluster growth, then a crash. And it should have died yet again in the aftermath of the 2013 Obama tax hike—partly expiration of some Bush tax cuts, partly new taxes to pay for Obamacare—when the economy continued jogging along, adding 200,000 jobs a month. Despite the consistent wrongness of their predictions, however, tax-cut fanatics just kept gaining influence in the G.O.P.—until the disaster in Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback promised that deep tax cuts would yield an economic miracle. What the state got instead was weak growth and a fiscal crisis, finally pushing even Republicans to vote for tax hikes, overruling Brownback’s veto.”

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, looks at the Kansas story as an important cautionary tale; he remains hopeful but skeptical that legislators in other states and Republicans in Congress will learn the story’s lesson. He spoke about what just happened in Kansas in his speech last week to the Cleveland City Club, where he pointed out that the Kansas lesson should be taken to heart in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and Ohio’s all-Republican legislature have been running exactly the same experiment as Brownback’s in Kansas, and with similar results: “The Kansas tax cuts represent an important cautionary tale from which both state and federal policymakers should learn. And there are few states where these lessons are more applicable and important than Ohio. Your state has actually cut its top income tax rate even more deeply than Kansas did. Kansas cut its rate 29% since 2012. Ohio has cut its top rate one-third since 2005, from a top rate of 7.5% to just under 5%.  Moreover, one of Kansas’ most damaging tax cuts was eliminating state income tax on what is known as ‘pass-through income’…. Ohio enacted a similar provision—eliminating state income tax on the first $250,000 a year of pass-through income and taxing the rest at just 3%. As in Kansas, the Ohio tax cuts have not delivered the promised results…”

Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio just reported on the fiscal impact of Ohio’s tax cut on pass-through income, “A tax break on business income first enacted in 2013 is now costing Ohio about $1 billion a year. That’s far more than previous public estimates, which didn’t attempt to account for the full value of the break.”

How is all this cautionary history directly relevant in a blog whose primary subject is public education?  Brent Larkin, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes the connection perfectly clear in his column in last Sunday’s paper: “Hide the children. Ohio’s legislators need a scapegoat.  And in this state, when the going gets tough, the kids get punished. Sometime between now and June 30, it’ll happen again… With tax revenues in a free fall, the Ohio General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich need to compensate for a multibillion-dollar mistake largely of their own making by inflicting pain on the people they’re supposed to serve, not betray. Like cornered rats, their way out will be to shortchange kids. So they’ll essentially flat-fund most school districts, while slashing support for others, ignoring yet again that ‘thorough and efficient’ system of schools requirement in Article VI of the Ohio Constitution.” And, “they will perpetuate Ohio’s ongoing pattern of shamefully underinvesting in preschool programs.” Larkin continues: “How is it a state that spent the past six years awash in tax revenue now lacks the money to make life-changing investments in a child’s future?  The answer involves a misjudgment so egregious that if it happened in the private sector everyone involved would pay with their jobs. Six years ago, instead of balancing tax cuts with massive investments in the future, Kasich and his legislative conspirators began engineering what now total $5 billion in tax cuts.”

Here is Gordon Lafer—the labor, economics and state policy expert—explaining, in his new book, what he believes to be an even deeper motive of ALEC, Grover Norquist and the huge corporate lobbies who are driving Congress and the state legislatures to adhere zealously to tax-slashing: “The corporate lobbies have pursued an agenda that steadily shrinks public services, including education, health care, libraries, recreation, parks, and transportation. The agenda serves to lower corporate tax bills and creates new markets for those hoping to profit from the privatization of public services. But there are deeper rationales underlying the erosion of public services… At a deeper level, the elimination of basic services serves, over time, to lower popular expectations regarding the standard of living to which one is entitled. For the economic elite—the few seeking to extend their rule over the many—the central political question of this time is how to accelerate economic inequality without provoking a political backlash.  A key component of the answer to this question appears to be an attempt to engineer what might be termed a revolution of falling expectations among the public.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 75-76)

Budget Expert, Robert Greenstein Explores Trump’s Heartless Budget in Cleveland City Club Address

Robert Greenstein, the President of the Washington, D.C., Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, addressed the Cleveland City Club last Friday. Greenstein’s subject was President Trump’s proposed budget and what it will mean for real people. Although Greenstein did not specifically address the federal education budget, what he said has profound and tragic implications for the future of public education as well as for health and social services. I urge you to watch the video or listen to the podcast or read Greenstein’s remarks.

President Trump’s budget, explains Greenstein, is a “topic that should be of grave concern to our nation, the state of Ohio, and the city of Cleveland… The Trump budget is different from any that I’ve seen from any President of either party in the 45 years I’ve been working on these issues… First, it is surprisingly unprofessional. President Trump has outlined a very large tax cut that he says will be one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history. Yet his budget makes a series of assumptions that few analysts find credible—such as assumptions of soaring economic growth year after year…. The budget also proposes to repeal the federal estate tax but then continues to count the revenue from it as though the tax would remain in place. And second, the budget proposes the most aggressive, Robin-Hood-in-Reverse, budget and tax policies that any modern President has ever proposed.”

Contrary to what we may have been reading in the paper, Greenstein worries that Congress may actually pass a budget like Trump’s proposal: “Now, you may have heard it said that the Trump budget is dead on arrival in Congress. Please don’t believe it. The Trump budget is, in large part, an exaggerated version of the budget plans that the very conservative House Republican majority has advanced every year since 2011, as well as of the last budget plan that the House and Senate jointly adopted, in 2015. Every one of those budgets would have deeply cut programs for Americans of limited means, deeply cut non-defense discretionary programs, shifted costs to states and localities, and provided substantial tax cuts for those at the top. None of those budgets made their way into law because Barack Obama was president. But now, the White House, House, and Senate are controlled by the same party, and they all have the same general idea about budget cuts and tax cuts.”

The first way Greenstein’s remarks speak to the future of our nation’s public schools is his discussion of the Robin-Hood-In-Reverse budget priorities that will take from the poor and near-poor and reward the rich through massive tax cuts. It has been well established that children’s school achievement is deeply affected by family and neighborhood poverty. Here is a reminder of that fact in a letter sent last year by the Vermont State Board of Education to then-Secretary of Education John King: “Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of our schools.”  This blog has explored the effects of poverty on school achievement; see, for example, here, here, and here.

So what does Greenstein tell us about how the President’s proposed budget will affect poor families and children? The budget “proposes remarkably large tax cuts for those at the top and remarkably severe cuts in social programs for those who face hard times—cuts in one program after another for working-poor families, (and) disadvantaged children… which would push millions of Americans either into poverty or deeper into it. The budget is especially harsh on people who live paycheck to paycheck or otherwise struggle to get by…. The budget embraces the House-passed bill to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cause 23 million more American to become uninsured… The budget also cuts nearly $200 billion over ten years from the food stamp program, both by cutting the program directly and by forcing states to pay about one-quarter of food stamp benefit costs…. (T)he Trump budget proposes to end the national food stamp benefit standards, which President Nixon and Congress established on a bipartisan basis after researchers in the late 1960s found rates of child malnutrition and nutrition-related diseases in parts of our country that were akin to the rates in some third-world countries. The Trump budget would turn back the clock.”

Greenstein continues: “In other areas, the budget would turn the clock back even further, to decades well before the 1960s. There’s a part of the federal budget known as non-defense-discretionary programs. This includes most of the federal spending for education, job training, scientific research, and transportation—important building blocks for a healthy economy in the future. It also includes funds for environmental protection, food safety, national parks, veterans’ health care, and a number of important programs to help low-and modest-income families, like low-income housing assistance, Head Start, and child care. This part of the budget has already been squeezed heavily in recent years. But the Trump budget would cut it so much more deeply that by 2017, total non-defense discretionary spending would be at its lowest level, as a share of the economy, since Herbert Hoover was president.”

In his remarks to the Cleveland City Club, Greenstein also addresses a second way that the new budget, if passed, will threaten public education. Again, the specific topic of public education is not a focus, but the implications are clear as Greenstein explains how the new budget, if passed, will dump the responsibility for paying for an enormous burden of previously federally funded programs onto states and localities. As readers of this blog are surely aware, the states take care of roughly half of education funding, with most of the rest paid for by local school districts. The federal government itself pays less than ten percent of K-12 education. Because education is the biggest line in many state budgets, it is among the only places (apart from or on top of massive state tax increases) where significant money could be found to pay for huge added costs for Medicaid and other added health care costs, food stamps, TANF, housing assistance and all the rest. And according to Greenstein, this federal budget bill is designed to demand that, as time passes, states must cover more and more of the costs previously paid for by the federal government.

For his Cleveland audience, Greenstein explains how shifting the cost of social and health programming would affect Ohio alone: “By the way, one-third of federal non-defense discretionary spending is for grants to state and local governments to help them deliver important services. The Trump budget cuts would hit Ohio and Cleveland hard. As just one of many examples, in 2018 alone, Ohio would lose $137 million in Community Development Block Grant funding….” “Ohio’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which insures 700,000 people, would end.  On top of that, the (budget) bill cuts federal funding for Ohio’s entire Medicaid program, with the cuts growing larger with each passing year; this would place the state’s 3 million Medicaid enrollees, and Ohio’s health care providers, at risk.” The proposed shift of food stamp costs to Ohio’s budget would be $4 billion over ten years.

Just a week ago, Greenstein’s colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Iris Lav and Michael Leachman, published a major report, The Trump Budget’s Massive Cuts to State and Local Services and Programs, which details what cuts to state and local governments will mean for the people who lose services unless states can find a way to compensate for federal cuts.

First there are entitlement programs (and this report calls food stamps by the acronym for its current name, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. SNAP): “Entitlement (or mandatory) programs are ongoing; they continue as they are unless policymakers change them. The Trump budget would significantly change three entitlements—Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF—and eliminate a fourth, the Social Services Block Grant.”

Then there are programs that are funded each year when Congress appropriates the money for specific budget lines—the part of the budget called Non-Defense Discretionary Spending: “The total cut to discretionary grants for states and localities would amount to $28 billion in 2018 and grow to about $82 billion a year by 2027.”  Programs eliminated are Low Income Energy Assistance; HOME Investment Partnerships, Community Development Block Grant and Choice Neighborhoods; the Community Services Block Grant; and two education programs—the 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school programs, and Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants (30 percent of these funds are used for class-size reduction and the rest for teacher professional development).

Make no mistake.  Eliminating  all these programs and reducing the federal budget for a host of others will hurt vulnerable families and children. And the federal cuts, even to programs that are not directly related to public schools, will inevitably further reduce state expenditures on public education when states struggle try to rearrange the budget to help desperate people who need health and social services. Here are Lav and Leachman in last week’s report: “Some may argue that states could pay for and continue these programs, rather than have people suffer the consequences of losing assistance and opportunities. The President’s March budget blueprint (the earlier Skinny Budget) repeatedly comments that various programs should be transferred to the states, with no mention of additional resources to support the transfer. The reality, however, is that states lack the wherewithal to replace the magnitude of funds they would lose under the budget. States operate under balanced budget requirements, and most states are already struggling to balance their current budgets, even before any federal cost shifts. Recent state revenue growth has been weaker than expected, leaving 28 states with budget shortfalls this fiscal year… Most of these states have responded by cutting services, using reserves, and taking other steps to balance their budgets…. More than half the states lack the revenue needed to maintain services at existing levels in 2018.”

Robert Greenstein’s speech to the Cleveland City Club is a clear and easy way to become better informed about the outrageous heartlessness of the budget Trump and Congress are considering.  I urge you to watch the video or listen to the podcast or read Greenstein’s remarks.  Then be in touch with your U.S. Senators.

Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It: Catering to the Desires of Individuals Won’t Serve the Common Good

Betsy DeVos is a libertarian. One cannot drill this concept often enough. DeVos believes in the freedom of individuals to make the choices that benefit themselves and their children. It is the kind of thinking that promotes the rights of individuals above all else. Wikipedia’s definition of libertarianism perfectly describes the thinking of Betsy DeVos: “Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment, and self-ownership.”  Libertarians don’t believe government should interfere with individual liberty.

The other day, Betsy DeVos made people in the audience mad when she addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (We’ll ignore for a minute the fact that charter schools are, as a form of private contracting, not really public schools.), because she didn’t seem fully to endorse charter schooling. Here is what she said: “Charter schools are here to stay… But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter… school works for them… I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed… and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve… We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.”  She also emphasized “the parents’ right to decide.”

She also criticized the bureaucracy and red tape that she believes are hampering charter schools, a critique meaning that DeVos rejects the role of government to protect our society through regulation. For DeVos, government regulation is the enemy, which is why the Great Lakes Education Project—the Michigan lobbying organization founded and funded by DeVos and her family—strong-armed the Michigan legislature to defeat the plan for a Detroit Education Commission to bring Detroit’s out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector under some oversight and to ensure that schools open in neighborhoods that need schools instead of neighborhoods with an oversupply of schools.

Betsy DeVos’s libertarianism allows her to ignore the concept of opportunity cost in education. She worries about liberty and freedom for each particular parent and child, but the mechanics of how we’ll pay for all this elude her. Economists call it “opportunity cost” when, because the budget is fixed, we have to  choose what we can afford. If we choose one kind of publicly funded school, we can’t also fund private alternatives unless we increase the budget. Opportunity cost in education is obvious to parents of children in public schools whose classes are getting larger, for example. Our problem is threefold, but Betsy DeVos doesn’t notice: (1) the overall federal budget for education has declined due to austerity budgeting and the sequester, (2) state budgets, a primary source of education funding, have fallen in nearly half the states since the 2008 recession, and (3) we have at the same time added publicly funded, privatized alternatives—charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Hence, we’ve lost the opportunity to spend as much on the public schools—which continue to educate 90 percent of our society’s children.

There are a mass of other negative spillover costs for society as a whole from school privatization—problems Betsy DeVos chooses not to see because she worries about individuals, not institutions. We judge the privatized educational alternatives by test scores (the mis-measure our society uses exclusively these days to evaluate schools), but even in cases where students’ test scores rise  and we brag about the “successful” privatized alternatives, we know there is other negative collateral damage from the privatization. Bruce Baker and Gordon Lafer have documented that in big city school districts, when the number of charters is rapidly expanded—particularly when charter operators choose the neighborhoods where they want to open schools—the charter sector operates as a parasite on the host public school district. After charters drain neighborhood public schools of children as parents are lured by charter school advertising, some public schools empty out and are closed. As the process proceeds, there is nowhere for children to return if the charter school proves academically deficient or is later closed.  The neighborhood has at the same time lost the public schools as institutional anchors. When students leave for privatized alternatives, there are also stranded costs for the public schools, stranded costs for building staff, facilities, and transportation that cannot be recouped. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to serve all children. Private schools  accepting vouchers are able to pick and choose the students they accept, and privatized charter schools can push out students with behavior problems or low test scores. Charters and schools accepting vouchers are rarely staffed to serve severely handicapped children and English language learners, the children who require the expensive services the public system must continue to provide. And the federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of such children can be ignored by private schools.

In contrast to DeVos’s libertarian worldview, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson consider education a social and civic project, something that can’t  be shopped for by individuals in a competitive marketplace: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

In a column published this week, Arthur Camins, a lifelong public school and college educator, explains that we cannot counter Betsy DeVos’s libertarian philosophy of education simply by reciting these arguments about the ways privatization does not work. It is the philosophy of individualism itself that must be rejected: “It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children—from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond—could end up as our co-workers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good—not just to suit individual parents’ desires… I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition.  Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted.  Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?”

Camins condemns not only the kind of individualism Betsy DeVos promotes but also our broader political climate for tolerating inequality of opportunity across American school districts, educational inequality that grows from our society’s economic inequality: “Of course, some schools do a better job than others…. (T)he big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result of our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortably stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum—whose lives are hardly easy or secure—to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.”

None of the world’s major religions has an ethical system based on the prowess of the individual and the survival of the fittest. Ethics is always about the way we conduct our relationships with other people in community. Here is the way a Christian, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman defines the concept of justice in a civic institution like our public school system: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”

PBS Airs Libertarian Propaganda Endorsing Privatization of Public Education

The Public Broadcasting System has been airing a three part documentary, School Inc., on the local PBS stations that have chosen to pick up the program. It is a piece of libertarian propaganda and makes no attempt to balance its advocacy for privatized and unregulated schooling. The film was created and is narrated by Andrew Coulson, who, for ten years before his premature death of brain cancer at age 48, served as director of the  libertarian, Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. In 1999, he published a book, Market Education: The Unknown History, but he is said to have considered the film, School Inc., his magnum opus.

On Tuesday afternoon, Diane Ravitch posted on her blog a commentary on Coulson’s three-part “personal reflection” on school privatization.  Ravitch posted the same piece on Huffington Post, and in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss picked up and republished Ravitch’s commentary. Ravitch was also interviewed about Coulson’s film on New York’s WNET, Channel 13. You can watch the 10 minute interview.

Ravitch correctly pegs School Inc. as a piece of right-wing, libertarian propaganda, an unbalanced attack on public education: “(T)he Public Broadcasting System is broadcasting a ‘documentary’ that tells a one-sided story, the story that (Betsy) DeVos herself would tell, based on the work of the late free-market advocate Andrew Coulson… Uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, teachers selling their lessons to students on the internet. They will learn about the ‘success’ of the free market in schooling in Chile, Sweden, and New Orleans. They will hear about the miraculous charter schools across America, and how public school officials selfishly refuse to encourage the transfer of public funds to private institutions… What they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.”

On his blog The Grade, on the website of the Phi Delta Kappan, Alexander Russo printed a very thoughtful review of  School Inc. by Amy Shuffleton, Associate Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies at Loyola University Chicago. She writes: “Two major premises, that education is best categorized as an industry and that industry is best subjected to unfettered free market forces, are maintained throughout. The upside of this approach is that those premises give the series a strong through line as it builds its argument across three hour-long, globe-trekking episodes. The downside is that the series never considers countervailing accounts of education and presents only strawman versions of the evidence that challenges his (Andrew Coulson’s) ideals… Supporters of traditional public schooling can find grounds to quarrel with Coulson’s interpretations all the way through.”

Who, besides Andrew Coulson and the Cato Institute, were involved in producing this film?  Shuffleton explains: “School Inc was produced by Free to Choose Media. According to a Free to Choose spokesperson, it was created by Coulson, who raised the funding necessary to make it… Free to Choose network shares a name with its first production, the 10-part series by economist Milton Friedman that aired on PBS in 1980. Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, argued that free market economic principles are the basis of human freedom and wellbeing. Friedman’s neoliberal followers have opposed government regulations in a host of domains, including education.”  The foundation now called EdChoice, which promotes the privatization of public education, was formerly named the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Ravitch examines the funders: “I researched the funders and discovered that the lead funder is the Rose Mary and Jack Anderson Foundation, a very conservative foundation that is a major contributor to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice), which advocates for vouchers.  The Anderson Foundation is allied with Donors Trust, whose donors make contributions that cannot be traced to them.  Mother Jones referred to this foundation as part of ‘the-dark money ATM of the conservative movement.’  Other contributors to Donors Trust include the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity’ and the Richard and Helen DeVos foundation. The second major funder is the Prometheus Foundation. It’s public filings with the IRS show that its largest grant ($2.5 million) went to the Ayn Rand Institute. The third listed funder of School Inc. is the Steve and Lana Hardy Foundation, which contributes to free-market libertarian think tanks.”

If you google for reviews of the three-part School Inc., you will find several besides the column I have referenced here by Amy Shuffleton at The Grade.  The other reviews were part of the promotion of the film—from the Cato Institute, Free To Choose Media, the National Review, and the Civitas Institute, a far-right North Carolina “think tank” affiliated with Art Pope.

Here is how the Cato Institute, in a memorial reflection at the time of his death, described Andrew Coulson’s qualifications for leading its Center for Educational Freedom: “Andrew Coulson grew up in Canada and got a degree in mathematics and computer science from McGill University, after which he became a software engineer at Microsoft.  As we said in announcing his joining Cato as director of the Center for Educational Freedom, ‘while Bill Gates quit school to form Microsoft, Andrew Coulson quit Microsoft to reform schools.'”

The film’s full title is School Inc.: A Personal Journey with Andrew Coulson. Here is the PBS online blurb about the series.  When Valerie Strauss inquired why PBS is running such a biased program, here was the reply: “A PBS spokesman said in an email… that the network stations ‘offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue’ and that School Inc. is ‘an independent production that reflects the personal viewpoint of series creator Andrew Coulson.'”

Ironically the Public Broadcasting System’s existence is under attack by libertarians who believe that government should have no role in broadcast media. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates government funding for PBS.

The Edu-Tech Billionaires Promote “Personalized” Learning That Lacks the Personal Touch

I was relieved when I read the Los Angeles Times‘ editorial a couple of weeks ago about the newfound humility of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as regards its education philanthropy. Recounting the history of billions spent on failed projects like the small-schools initiative, the initiative to evaluate teachers and reward the best with merit pay, and the investment to develop, publicize and spread the Common Core standards, the LA Times editorial board writes: “Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened. ‘We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,’ wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman… ‘It is really tough to create more great public schools.'”

The only problem is that it isn’t quite true that Gates has disappeared from the world of education “reform.” Gone are the days, of course, when Arne Duncan hired Jim Shelton, right out of the Gates Foundation to lead the Office of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education. But the Billionaire Boys continue to work behind the scenes.

Today the focus is “personalized learning,” the Orwellian name its proponents are calling computer-driven learning.  And, no surprise, Jim Shelton has come back to lead the philanthropically-driven effort, but this time he’s working with the Gates Foundation from a perch as head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what Benjamin Herold at Education Week calls “the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.” “The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years.”

Here is Herold’s description of the new project: “Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative…. Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based ‘venture philanthropy’ organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving.”

Reporters for Inside Philanthropy, who call the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative CZI, add that since Shelton took over a year ago, “CZI’s work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is ‘building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning.’ More specifically, it’s creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which ’empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests.’  This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It’s now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger… Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: ‘It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up.'”

And, explains Inside Philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made a grant to Chiefs for Change, a network of local and state school superintendents convened by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has pushed all sorts of ed tech contracting. “Chiefs for Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup.”

Inside Philanthropy concludes its report: “What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg’s own background and world view. And it reflects a techno-optimism at the core of CZI’s work. ‘We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change,’ the organization says.”

In a new analysis for the NY Times, Natasha Singer is a little more skeptical about The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools, including Facebook’ s Mark Zuckerberg: “The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.”  She continues: “If Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg has his way, children the world over will soon be teaching themselves—using software his company helped build. It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates… Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them. ‘When you visit a school like this, it feels like the future—it feels like a start-up.. You get the feeling this is how more of the education system should work.'”

Let me be very clear.  Students need to learn how to use technology. Even as a relatively computer-illiterate blogger, I compose on a laptop. I recently found an old kitchen mug to store all the pencils that have been lying around the house, and I carried them up to the attic. And technology is a wonderful tool for exploring and researching and calculating.  School should incorporate technology beginning in the elementary years.

But there is something very important missing from these articles about Zuckerberg and Gates and Shelton and the huge grant to New Profit.  In Education Week, Benjamin Herold quotes the Gates Foundation’s program officer commenting on the new work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “It’s 100 percent collaborative… We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”  If this is a collaborative project about how students are going to learn in the future, I wonder about the very important people whose voices seem to be missing from the collaboration: teachers.  If this effort were really collaborative, wouldn’t you think the edu-philanthropists might have folded in some contributions from experts at Teachers College or Bank Street or the state teachers’ colleges? What about engaging the wisdom of advisory panels from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers? Teachers might bring a focus to the kind of classroom leadership, student mentoring, and classroom management that is going to be needed for this “remaking” of education.

And finally there is the really personal part of learning.  While the tech edupreneurs might dream about each child’s “personal” exploration through the computer, lots of us worry about protecting the personal relationships between children and their classroom peers and their real live teachers—in small enough classes where those relationships can flourish. We must insist that, just as patients in hospital beds need doctors and nurses (assisted by technology of course) to care for them, children be provided well-trained, experienced teachers to build classroom communities and nurture learning.

In a recent book, First Do No Harm, progressive educator Steve Nelson shares his concerns about so-called “blended” and “personalized” learning: “My objections to technology are mostly directed to the misuse with young children and to the alarming tendency to substitute technology for real human interactions… The world’s greatest problem is not a shortage of people who can write computer code… Our challenge is to develop humans who have the fluid intellect, creativity, imagination, aesthetic sensibilities and ethical convictions to save the world from the sorry mess we have created. That’s the purpose of education… Relationships are central to learning, both as a contributor to the release of dopamine, but also as a critical social context for language development as articulated by Vygotsky, Bruner, et al.”

Nelson continues: “The colorful images that often accompany education articles or on school websites show children sitting in small cubicles, smiling at their computers, with little human interaction at all…  The symbolic representation of life is not the same as life itself. Perhaps the greatest harm done by technology is an act of omission. Every hour of screen time, whether in school or at home, is an hour not spent in some much more important activity, especially those things that involve real human engagement…. (T)echnology is just the most recent manifestation of the industrial model of education.  Inherent in the technological model of education is economy of scale. It must be impersonal, and people and parts must be interchangeable. It must be replicable…  Most importantly, it must be profitable.” (First Do No Harm, p. 126-133)