For-Profit Colleges: Marketing to the Desperate, Supported by Our Taxes

In the summer issue of The American Prospect, Mark Huelsman profiles the for-profit colleges he calls Betrayers of the Dream.  “The students targeted and affected most by fraudulent operators are disproportionately black, “explains Huelsman.  “The story of predatory for-profit colleges is not unlike that of subprime lending or the proliferation of payday loans.  Wider economic unease was used by the cynical to bring further distress to people of color.”

Huelsman lists the trail of  investigations that finally resulted in the closure of Corinthian Colleges—a for-profit that had “enrolled more students than the Ohio State University and the University of Texas combined.” Corinthian had been flagged by attorneys general in several states, Tom Harkin and the U.S. Senate,  lawsuits from the federal government, and an investigation by the SEC: “These found a broad pattern of deception in recruiting students, bogus reporting of job placement data, and a strategy of combining high tuition and debt levels with a substandard educational product.”  “Corinthian’s story,” writes Huelsman, “is a microcosm of the for-profit college sector….”

Huelsman reports that what finally brought down Corinthian was a relatively simple action by the Obama Department of Education—a  decision to force Corinthian to fulfill the Department’s reporting requirements by withholding federal funds—student loans, Pell Grants, and G.I Bill Benefits—until the college submitted reports. Corinthian was unable to comply with regulations before its cash flow ran out. Like other publicly-traded, for-profit colleges that depend on federal financial aid for 86 percent of their funding, Corinthian was unable to survive the freeze on access to federal dollars.  (Holding the college, not its vulnerable students accountable, U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan later announced debt relief for 40,000 of Corinthian’s former students and a chance for 300,000 others to apply for relief for student loans that had paid for their Corinthian tuition.)

Huelsman describes explosive enrollment growth at for-profit colleges—an increase of 225 percent from 1998-2008 compared to growth during the same period of only 31 percent in the total college-going population.  “This enrollment growth included a massive targeting of students of color.  The University of Phoenix, for example, was spending as much as $400,000 a day on advertising.  Ads for these colleges were ubiquitous in communities of color, on commercials for day-time television programs, at bus stops and subways…. They enlisted leaders in the black community to advertise on their behalf…”  Recruiters for a St. Louis for-profit, Vatterott College, told recruiters to ‘target the welfare mom with kids’ and ‘pregnant ladies,’ as well as those with records of ‘recent incarceration’ and ‘drug rehabilitation.’  Other colleges had recruiters drop off information at Section 8 housing and and unemployment offices….”

Huelsman quotes Johns Hopkins sociologist, Stefanie DeLuca  describing the young people targeted with such advertising: “These are students often without the benefit of college counselors, making what appear to be logical decisions based on the signals and available information.”  The resulting average debt load, especially for students eventually dropping out without a credential is alarming—“$40,000, nearly $15,000 more than graduates at public four-year colleges, and over $6,000 more than graduates at historically black colleges and universities.” And 53 percent of borrowers in four-year, for-profit programs eventually drop out without a credential that will lead to a job.

Huelsman summarizes the lobbying and political contributions that have led to a bipartisan failure in Congress to regulate the for-profit, higher education sector.  “Phoenix alone contributed $11 million to candidates in the 2008 election cycle.”  And political contributions have been directed to Congressional leaders from both parties.

In very recent years enrollments at the for-profits have fallen—at the U. of Phoenix from 470,000 at its highest point to 214,000 in 2015.  “There are plenty of reasons for the massive retrenchment, but perhaps the most important has been the belated attention on the part of the Obama administration, a handful of Democrats, and even state regulatory officials.”  And a Senate report, “spearheaded by Tom Harkin, the now-retired chair of the Senate Health, Education Labor, and Pensions Committee, pulled back the curtain on an array of recruiting abuses, shoddy academic offerings, and low graduation rates.”

In an in-depth, book-length study of growing inequality in higher education, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler summarizes the plight of the typical student at a for-profit college:  “(W)hile the for-profits appear to give struggling Americans a shot at improving their life circumstances, in reality, these schools leave many worse off, to the point of financial ruin.  Simultaneously, they lavish abundant profits on owners and corporate shareholders—at taxpayer expense—effectively benefiting the affluent even as they destroy the lives of the less advantaged.  Most egregiously, the U.S. government not only condones these circumstances but actively facilitates and sponsors them through nearly full subsidization of such schools—paired with, at present, only minimal regulation of how they conduct themselves.” (p. 4)

Degrees of Inequality would be a fine addition to your summer reading list.  But in the meantime, Mark Huelsman’s report is short and pithy, and it documents many of the most serious injustices in the for-profit colleges. I urge you to read it.

Plutocrats in New York Flood Albany with Anonymous Gifts to Promote Education Agenda

There are a lot of ways to shape a story, and there’s an important contrast between the story about the politics of public education that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times and another story published earlier this week in the Albany Times Union.  Both are about the same subject—the impact on New York’s public schools of Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein and a bunch of billionaire hedge fund managers.  But Kate Taylor’s story in the NY Times is framed as a political battle—StudentsFirst NY vs. teachers’ unions.  The story to which Taylor pays less attention—though it is the backstory behind her report— is the attack on traditional public schools and public school teachers (not their unions) by a bunch of wealthy investors who are far less likely than most New York families ever to use public schools.

If this is a political fight with two sides, it is really about the 99 Percent whose interests are served by the institution of public education and the 1 Percent represented by New York’s Wall Street investment community.  And Chris Bragg in the Albany Times Union focuses on the question we should all be thinking about: In these times of exploding inequality, is it a good idea that anonymous political gifts of the very rich are buying the policy that shapes the institutions that serve the majority of our children?

Bragg explains: “Three groups pushing education reforms that spent heavily lobbying state government this year funded at least a portion of their efforts through donations whose original sources are essentially untraceable…  StudentsFirst NY Advocacy, the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and Families for Excellent Schools spent more than $8.3 million during the 2015 legislative session lobbying state government to promote charter schools and other issues, according to recent lobbying disclosure filings… The original donors behind more than $3.4 million of the spending remain murky in the groups’ biannual filings.  In one instance, StudentsFirst NY Advocacy received a $1 million donation from a heavily overlapping but technically separate group run out of the same office, obscuring the original sources of the seven-figure gift.”

While New York’s legislature passed a state ethics reform law in 2011, Bragg reports: “The law took effect in 2013. Loopholes quickly became apparent… If a donation is given to an intermediary that then gives to a lobbying group, only the intermediary’s identity must be disclosed under the 2011 ethics reform. The state lobbying and ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, acknowledged in a February report that entities were currently able to ‘construct funding mechanisms that may avoid disclosure while still technically complying with the law and the regulations,’ and suggested lawmakers might address the issue. The State Legislature has not done so.”

One group that operates within the letter but not the spirit of the law is Families for Excellent Schools. Bragg tells us: “Families for Excellent Schools, another Manhattan group that also lists the same address as StudentsFirst NY but says that it operates separately, has taken a much more direct approach that has allowed its donors to remain anonymous.  Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $1.6 million on New York lobbying so far this year, has an issue-oriented nonprofit arm that would have to disclose its benefactors.  But the group does almost all its lobbying through its apolitical arm, which does not have to report its donors under New York lobbying laws and can take tax-deductible donations.  The apolitical arm spent a staggering $9.7 million on Albany lobbying in 2014, but it did not disclose a single donor.”  Bragg continues: “The heavy lobbying spending as defined by New York law, plus the IRS restrictions on lobbying by such nonprofits could raise potential issues regarding the group’s tax status.”

Despite its frame that emphasizes a war between plutocrats and teachers’ unions, Kate Taylor’s piece in the NY Times does report some very interesting information about the advocacy effort, begun in the Bloomberg-Klein years, to disrupt what this group calls the traditional public education status quo.  Taylor provides some history: “StudentsFirst NY was founded in 2012 by Joel I. Klein, who had been the schools chancellor for more than eight years under Mr. Bloomberg; Michelle Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor; and the billionaire hedge fund managers Daniel S. Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones.  It receives some support from StudentsFirst, the national organization Ms. Rhee founded in 2010, but has its own board of directors and functions independently.  Mr. Bloomberg himself does not appear to be involved in StudentsFirst NY.”

Taylor brings the history up to date: “Making teacher evaluations more dependent on test scores, reforming tenure and increasing the number of charter schools in the city were all priorities of StudentsFirst NY and became significant pieces of the governor’s (Andrew Cuomo’s) agenda for the 2015 legislative session…. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, as well as interviews, show that Mr. Cuomo and his senior education advisers were in close touch, by e-mail and telephone, with Ms. Sedlis (Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirst NY) and her board members in the weeks after the governor’s re-election last November.  On Dec. 9, for example, the governor met with Ms. Sedlis and several of her board members at the Harvard Club to discuss education policy issues, a spokesman for StudentsFirst NY said.”

New York City’s current mayor, Bill deBlasio has not made the expansion of charter schools his priority but has instead—with his chancellor Carmin Farina, a career educator—worked to improve the city’s system of traditional schools. The big-money lobbying organizations in New York have helped Governor Cuomo fight deBlasio’s policies to support and improve the city’s public schools.   Taylor describes the dark-money expenditures by Families for Excellent Schools, the same organization examined by Bragg: “Last year, it spent $9.6 million on lobbying, more than any other entity in the state…. Much of this money was spent on advertisements attacking Mr. deBlasio for his opposition to charter schools and a later ad praising Mr. Cuomo for coming to their aid.”

Like Bragg, Taylor questions the tax exempt status of Families for Excellent Schools: “Families for Excellent Schools is approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization, referring to the section of the tax code regarding charities, meaning that donations are tax-deductible, and under New York State law, it need not disclose donors.  Those organizations are allowed to spend only a small portion of their money on lobbying, but the federal definition of lobbying, in contrast with the state’s definition, is relatively narrow.”  Taylor quotes Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York about the danger of anonymity in political giving: “The danger is the public really doesn’t know from the advertising who is trying to push public policy and what their motivations might be.”

In One-Party North Carolina, Elected Supreme Court Upholds School Vouchers

In North Carolina last week, the Charlotte Observer editorialized, “The legislature voted 4-3 along party lines… to approve taxpayer–funded vouchers for private schools.  Oh wait, that wasn’t the legislature.  That was the N.C. Supreme Court.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the two.”  The newspaper’s editorial board is commenting on the lack of checks and balances in a one-party state: Republican governor, Republican legislature, Republican elected supreme court.

The Raleigh News & Observer also editorialized on the explicitly partisan dynamics in the way the North Carolina voucher case was handled:  “And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program… The high court’s taking of the case was a sign Republican justices were going to support the agenda of Republican lawmakers.  And that’s what happened.”

North Carolina’s supreme court on July 23 upheld the constitutionality of a school voucher program the state’s legislature established in 2013.  Education Week reports that the program awards $4,200 to low-income students to enable them to attend private or parochial schools.  “Last year, around 1,200 students used vouchers to attend private schools.  At least three-quarters of them were affiliated with a religion….”  What are the issues at stake? The Raleigh News & Observer’s editorial explains: “It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling.  It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.”

The North Carolina Justice Center explains the argument made by those who brought the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new voucher program:  “The North Carolina Supreme Court disregarded the plain language of our state Constitution, which provides that public funds for education must be used ‘exclusively’ to support the public schools… Risky voucher schemes like the current law will not require schools to have qualified teachers or a standard curriculum, and (will) allow publicly funded private schools to discriminate against students on the basis of income, disability or religion.  Schools that receive vouchers have no accountability for student learning and achievement.”

Writing for North Carolina Policy Watch, Sharon McCloskey describes the legal challenge to the state’s voucher program. Private schools accepting the vouchers “can range from religious schools with several students to a home school of one.” Such schools “are not subject to state standards relating to curriculum, testing and teacher certification and are free to accept or reject students of their own choosing, including for religious or other discriminatory reasons.  In reaching its conclusion—and despite the constitution’s language that state funds should be ‘appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools’—the majority held that public funds may be spent on educational initiatives outside of the uniform system of free public schools… (T)he majority said that the constitutionally required ‘sound basic education’ for North Carolina students, set down in the landmark Leandro decision, did not apply to private schools.”

McCloskey continues: “The upshot… is that public schools paid for with taxpayer funds must provide students with such a ‘sound basic education.’ Taxpayer-funded private schools need not.  That double-standard particularly perturbed Justice Robin Hudson, who wrote in her dissenting opinion that ‘a large gap opens between Leandro-required standards and no standards at all, which is what we have here.  When taxpayer money is used, the total absence of standards cannot be constitutional.”

When I asked her to comment on this case, Molly Hunter, an attorney and the director of Education Justice, the Education Law Center’s national program, explained: “In its analysis of this [voucher] program, the Court overturns its own precedent and the North Carolina Constitution’s requirement that taxpayer funds must serve ‘public purposes only.’  The Court’s opinion is contrary to its own precedent, again, when it allows state funding to support schools that are not required to provide a ‘sound basic education,’ credentialed teachers, and a required curriculum, as public schools must do.”

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.”  Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves.  Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting.  After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain.  The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”

Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states.  The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains.  These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District.  But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”

Recovery School District.  Achievement School District. They are the very same thing.  Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes.  Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race.   The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts.  And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed.  Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.

As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.”  Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.  Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times.  In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.”  Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.

Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder.  Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit.   Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement.  In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.

Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”

Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June.  The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature.  The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult.  It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust.  But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide.  And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”

If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish.  But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very poorest children.

New York City Provides Its High School Students Grossly Unequal Access to the Curriculum

New York City has mayoral governance in its public schools. As a central part of the school reforms imposed during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms, the New York City public schools instituted universal school choice for students in high school. While students with very high scores can test into the city’s limited number of exclusive magnet high schools, most students apply to an array of less selective high schools. At the same time Bloomberg introduced school choice for all high schoolers, his schools chancellor broke up the large high schools serving thousands of students into smaller high schools that were, in many cases, “co-located” into the old high school buildings.   The new, small schools limited admission to several hundred, not several thousand, and promised personal attention to their students.  Every student was to be known and feel known by the adults at the school. A new, short and readable report by Clara Hemphill on the overall impact of New York’s small high schools of choice was just published by the New School Center for New York City Affairs.  There are successes and failures.  Hemphill suggests ways that New York City can address the inequities that persist.

Hemphill explains: “While the graduation rate has steadily increased over the past decade, the proportion of students receiving an Advanced Regents diploma—one commonly used measure of college readiness—has stagnated.  In 2014, just 18 percent of students starting New York City high schools four years earlier earned Advanced Regents diplomas.”

A serious problem is the limited curricula provided in many of the small high schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science… Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics.  Many of these are the new small high schools that proliferated during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg… (Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools.  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.)”

“The result,” writes Hemphill, “is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system—one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.  Looking at statistics from August 2014, the Center for New York City Affairs found that 48 percent of the New York City public high school students receiving Advanced Regents diplomas are clustered in just 25 schools.  At 100 other schools, on the other hand, not a single student received an Advanced Regents diploma…  While white and Asian students make up less than one-quarter of citywide public high school enrollment, they constitute roughly 70 percent of the students at the top city high schools awarding Advanced Regents degrees.  At the 100 schools where no Advanced Regents diplomas were awarded, the student body was 92 percent black and Hispanic.”

Hemphill explains how these disparities have evolved over time.  While in a high school with 3,000 students, even if only one percent of students are prepared to take advanced math or chemistry or physics, it is economically worthwhile to offer at least one advanced math or chemistry or physics course.  The percentages are very different, in a school of 400 students: “In a high school of 400 kids, however, the comparable critical mass for creating advanced classes has to be much larger than just 1 percent of the students before it makes sense to commit the necessary time and effort.  Sometimes, that critical mass simply doesn’t exist… (F)or many students, the die is cast before they arrive in 9th grade… It is very difficult for students to overcome poor preparation in elementary and middle schools.  Most students who enter 9th grade with weak math skills don’t catch up: If they go to college, they must take remedial classes.”

The new report from the Center on New York City Affairs suggests a number of relatively simple, though probably in some cases costly ways to address the problem.  They include hiring math specialists across the city’s 5th grades, investing heavily in math instruction in all middle and high schools, and offering non-math-based “conceptual” chemistry and physics for students with poor math backgrounds.  One rather obvious idea for students in small schools co-located in one building is to provide shared advanced courses in sciences and mathematics—introducing campus-wide economies of scale to  overcome the limitations of the small schools.

The report addresses one of the most serious problems facing school districts where children who are far behind have become concentrated.  Over time the high school curriculum becomes scaled back when not enough well prepared students come through the system to fill advanced courses at the high school.  In what is perhaps the most easily conceptualized example, if a school district facing serious underfunding cuts back its elementary and middle school instrumental music program, sooner or later, there won’t be enough young musicians to fill the high school orchestra. In the same way, Calculus gets eliminated from high school math offerings when not enough well-prepared students come up through the system to fill even one classroom at the high school.  Disparities in access to curriculum are the very definition of inequity.

Public School Systems Beat Charters with Equitable Services Systemically Provided

While charter schools in a lot of places are known to use subtle, unnamed selective screens—there are far fewer English language learners, for example, and students with extremely serious disabilities enrolled in charter schools nationwide—only in New Orleans are there explicitly selective charter schools.  The rules were bent for three already selective-admission magnet schools—Benjamin Franklin High School, Lusher Charter School, and Lake Forest Elementary School—in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, when the charter experiment in New Orleans was launched.  These three schools administer admissions tests and choose the students they will accept, and they are, like all the city’s other open-enrollment charter schools, without tuition.  Writing for the Hechinger Report, Marta Jewson explains, “In a city where private-school tuition rivals college costs, gaining admission to these free public schools is like finding the golden ticket.”  Not surprisingly, all three charter schools that can select high-scoring students post high aggregate test scores.

An earlier piece by the same author explains the OneApp process that has, after several years of working out the glitches, lately been coordinating admissions more smoothly for New Orleans’ 82 charter schools (apart from the three with selective admissions) that accept applications from families across the city: “The OneApp selection uses software that takes a number of factors into account when placing students, including their ranking of schools and preferences for siblings or if a student’s current school is closing.  Of the 11,391 valid applications submiitted through OneApp, which assigns students to a majority of the city’s schools, 75 percent of students got one of their top three choices.  On the flip side, 2,325 students were not matched to any school they wanted.  About half of the unmatched students will apply again in a second round and the others will stay at their current school.”

Jewson reports that 54 percent of students using OneApp were admitted to the school that was their first choice while 20 percent of students were not accepted into any of the schools to which they applied.  Students who are not accepted will remain in the school they currently attend, unless, like the student at Lagniappe Academy and Miller-McCoy Academy, their school is being closed for low performance.  Such students are forced to request another choice.

New Orleans, with three explicitly selective charter schools, is an anomaly.  But there remain serious questions everywhere about the ways school choice reproduces and intensifies inequality.  Unlike neighborhood public schools, charters are permitted everywhere to close overall admissions by setting enrollment caps when a school’s administration deems it is full. Some charters “protect their school culture” by choosing not to accept new students to fill spaces after students drop out; their enrollment numbers drop as students move to higher grades and the schools continue to work with the children they have been grooming since the primary grades. Charters are known to screen students merely by choosing to locate in particular neighborhoods or they choose the languages in which they advertise.  And few charters are intentional about reaching out to extremely poor or homeless students.

While such subtle screens are common from city to city, for charter schools to screen applicants with admissions tests is unusual.  As Jewson reports, in New Orleans the consequences are predictable: “What with admissions tests, multiple mandatory meetings and in-person delivery of applications, it is small wonder why fewer than 50 percent of students at Lusher are minorities, and why only 21 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.  By contrast, 98 percent of RSD (the state Recovery School District) students in New Orleans are minorities, and 92 percent are economically disadvantaged.”

The theory behind the kind of “portfolio school district” of which New Orleans is said to be the model posits that good choices will be provided for all families in every neighborhood.  School choice, however, inevitably favors the families savvy enough to know how to play the system by writing the best applications, delivering applications on time, and requesting a smart package of possible choices in a OneApp process.  Traditional public schools are designed around the idea that the public ought to provide for all children who appear at their doors—even if the children have special needs—even if they arrive in mid-November or February.

A system of pubic schools is likely to provide better coordinated services and to take advantage of economies of scale. A system of public schools is more likely to provide less churn and far more stable services for the majority of children. A public system, accountable to an elected school board, is more likely to serve the needs and protect the rights of the mass of our children.

Nevada’s New Voucher Plan Is Designed to Bankrupt the Public Schools

Nevada is one of our nation’s 24 one-party, all Republican statesWriting for the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown note that, “In January, Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.” “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling…  Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.”  A child must be enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days in order to qualify.

Layton and Brown report that the new Nevada voucher bill was developed with the assistance of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the foundation Jeb Bush launched in 2008, but from which he resigned at the end of 2014 to prepare for his Presidential candidacy.  The Foundation’s chief executive Patricia Levesque describes Nevada’s new voucher bill: “This is the wave of the future.  In all aspects of our life, we look for ways to customize and give individuals more control over their path and destiny…. This is a fundamental shift in how we make decisions about education.”

The Education Law Center recently circulated an analysis of Nevada’s new school vouchers from Educate Nevada Now, a statewide organization that promotes public education:  “The ESA (Education Savings Account) law requires the ‘statewide average basic support per pupil’—$5,100 per student and $5,710 for low-income and students with disabilities—be deposited into each ESA (Education Savings Account) from local district budgets, a process that will divert, over time, substantial resources from the public schools.  Studies have shown that Nevada substantially underfunds K-12 public education… ESAs will trigger an outflow of funds from already inadequate school district budgets, beginning in the 2015-16 school year… As children leave public schools with ESA funds, some of the costs to educate those students will leave with them.  But ESAs will cause a deficit for the local district, given the fixed costs of operating the school system for all children… ESAs also create instability in district and school budgets.  Districts will not know how many students will exit and how much money will be taken out of the budget during the school year.  This unpredictability will make it difficult to manage public school budgets, as local administrators won’t know how many teachers and staff to hire… or how to allocate funds to provide sufficient resources to schools throughout the school year.”

Nevada is making the vouchers for over $5,000 available to any family, while most other states with voucher programs reserve the vouchers for students living in poverty.  The worry is that beneficiaries of this new program may well be upper income families who will use the vouchers as partial scholarships for expensive private schools.  Educate Nevada Now explains: “The ESA law has no limit on the income of households that can obtain ESA funds.  There is only a handful of private schools in Nevada with tuition low enough to be covered by $5,100 or $5,710, the annual ESA amount.  ESAs are designed to be a ‘subsidy’ by more affluent families who can already afford to send their children to selective private and religious schools.  Conversely, ESAs are insufficient for students from low-income families, and those who need more costly English language instruction or special education services.  At-risk students will stay in the public schools, therefore, increasing the segregation of students based on race, socioeconomic status, disability, English language proficiency, and other factors in those schools.”  Expansion of school choice very often operates by providing escapes for able children and  leaving the students with greatest needs in what become public school districts of last resort.

The law was passed without attention to racial or economic discrimination and without any protection for equity: “Unlike Nevada public schools, the private and religious schools accepting ESA funds are not prohibited from discriminating based on race, gender or disability…. (T)he private institutions… that participate in the ESA program are exempt from the most basic protections that prevent discrimination of disadvantaged and vulnerable student populations.  Finally, the private for-profit or non-profit education providers that accept ESA funds can use their admissions rules, including competitive pretesting, transcript evaluation and letters of recommendation.  These schools and entities are free to select students based on who they decide fits their religious or secular mission, culture and programs.”

The Education Law Center’s national 2015 school funding analysis, Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, ranks Nevada’s public school funding level 40th of the 50 states, and awards Nevada an “F” grade for its highly inequitable funding distribution.  In a recent post, Jennifer Berkshire, who blogs as EduShyster, commented on the likely impact of Nevada’s voucher plan on Nevada’s already poorly funded public schools: “Speaking of overcrowding and deterioration (note that I’m bolding these for emphasis), it seems like building new off-ramps for kids who are fortunate enough to have more than $5,700 in their backpacks won’t only leave problems like overcrowding and deterioration unaddressed, but will actually leave the majority of kids in Nevada’s schools worse off.”