Massachusetts Question 2 to Multiply Charter Schools: Driven by Dark Money Astroturf Campaign

Public schools serve the 99 Percent, but in too many places these days, the powerful forces that drive education policy are the One Percent.

The campaign for Question 2, on the ballot this fall in Massachusetts, is a case in point.  If Question 2 passes, it will lift a legislative cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year.  As Charles Pierce explains, in a critique for Esquire, “If Massachusetts has done charters better than, say, Ohio or Florida, it is because the state has exercised… excellent rigorous oversight… and the cap has been an essential part of that oversight.  The current campaign to eliminate the cap is not being done to benefit poor children.  It is being waged to benefit the charter school industry, which wants to demolish… excellent, rigorous oversight….”

When Families for Excellent Schools (FES), an example of the new kind of IRS-defined “social welfare agency,” came to Massachusetts from New York in 2014, Jobs with Justice Massachusetts explained: “Unfortunately, we may never know exactly how much money Wall Street is pumping into FES.  By taking advantage of its dual 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) structure, FES skirts political lobbying disclosure laws to ensure its donors remain largely anonymous.” Families for Excellent Schools is one of those “dark money” groups that wield enormous political power while claiming to promote social welfare. It began as a promoter of charter schools in New York City but has now expanded into New England.

Investment to promote Question 2 is lavish. Jonathan Pelto, a Connecticut blogger, reports that “the charter school industry is on track to dump up to $18 million into a record breaking campaign….” The Boston Globe identifies five organizations underwriting it.  None of them is required transparently to list its donors:

  • Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy is chaired by Paul Applebaum, principal of Rock Ventures LLC, an investment firm in New York.
  • Education Reform Now Advocacy is an arm of Education Reform Now, a national organization that promotes charter schools. According to 2014 tax records, the most recent available, the president is Joe Williams, a former director of Democrats for Education Reform, and the policy director is Charles Barone, another staffer at that organization.
  • Strong Economy for Growth has been active in Republican politics.
  • Great Schools for Massachusetts‘ president is Jon Clark, codirector of operations of the Brooke Charter School network; the treasure is Christopher W. Collins, a cofounder of First Atlantic Capital….
  • Expanding Education Opportunities was set up July 1 by Bryan Jamele and Valerie Boyns, two employees oft the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, which is regarded as the state’s most powerful private business group.”

Early in August, Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, reported on his own investigation of the dark money behind the $2.3 million television advertising campaign launched during coverage of the Olympics: “The first thing we see is that the ad was paid for by Great Schools Massachusetts, a ballot committee registered with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.  The top five contributors to the ballot committee are Great Schools for Massachusetts; Education Reform Now Advocacy; Expanding Education Opportunities; Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy; and Strong Economy for Growth.”  Through an extensive search of records of these organizations, he discovered: “There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this… They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Blaupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management.  Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups.  Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy… They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t… No.  There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever.”

Cunningham concludes: “I think it’s terrible for democracy. ‘Secretive cabal’ and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t.  And if you say, ‘Let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,’ that imperils us going forward.  Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice: ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.”

How Educational Redlining Works in Ohio

In an extraordinary indictment of the test-and-punish regime imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind and renewed last December in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center decry the kind of rating and ranking of schools that was reproduced on September 15 in its 2016 version here in Ohio:  “The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing. This system has inadequately supported teachers and students, has imposed astronomically high goals, and has inflicted punishment on those for whom it has demanded impossible achievements.” “This diverse nation and our common good require all students to be well educated. Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and poor families. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than providing a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all. And we do not hold ourselves responsible for the basic denial of equal opportunities.”

Yesterday, Rich Exner, the data analyst for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, examined the newest Ohio school district report cards that award letter grades to school districts based on their students’ test scores: “The Ohio school report cards released earlier this month were nearly perfect in following an established trend—higher income districts on average scored better than those with lower household incomes. This was the case for five of the six overall categories in which the Ohio Department of Education issued grades…. The incomes were typically higher for the districts getting As, and the incomes were typically the lowest for those getting Fs.  Incomes for Bs, Cs and Ds correspondingly declined.”

How the state came up with each of its graded categories is not entirely clear, but for five of the categories there can be no confusion about the correlation of the state’s letter grade with each school district’s median income:

  • In the category of ACHIEVEMENT, A-rated districts’ median household income is $69,286, while F-rated districts’ median income is $27,090.
  • A-rated districts in the category of GRADUATION rates have a median household income of $43,075, while median income in F-rated districts in this category is $26,406.
  • In the category of GAP CLOSING, the median family income in A-rated districts is $63,191, while in F-rated districts the median income is $36,989.
  • In the category of PROGRESS, median income in the A-rated districts is $41,881, while in F-rated districts, it is $37,119.
  • In a final category, PREPARED FOR SUCCESS, A-rated districts boast median family income of $74,508 while families in F-graded districts struggle at $27,389.

Howard Fleeter, analyst at the Ohio Education Policy Institute, examines the same data, and despite that Ohio used a new and different test last spring, his overall conclusion replicates what he has written now for several years running: “This analysis is far from the first to demonstrate a strong negative correlation between student achievement and socioeconomic status. However, this data shows that in Ohio, the negative correlation between socioeconomics and student achievement has proven all too persistent over time.”

Exner and Fleeter demonstrate what sociologists have been explaining for fifty years: the well known correlation of standardized test scores with inequality of family income, not school quality.  These analysts, however, do not comment on the effect: Such rating systems drive economic segregation. And the impact of such school district grades is reinforced when real estate services like Zillow promote the ratings to emphasize the desirability of moving to districts with “high-rated” schools.

States like Ohio, that brand schools in wealthy communities with As and brand school districts serving poorer children with Fs, are resurrecting the practice of redlining by creating incentives for families with means to abandon poorer communities and move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts in outer ring suburbs.  Such educational redlining promotes racial and economic segregation.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia Opportunity School District Will NOT Expand Learning Opportunity

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s statewide Opportunity School District, a state takeover plan for so-called “failing” schools, will appear before Georgia’s voters in November. His plan will become part of the state constitution if voters approve it. The timing is bad for Deal, however, because public opinion and expert opinion seems to be turning against the kind of scheme he has proposed.  More and more evidence is accruing that statewide “achievement” school districts do not improve student achievement; neither do statewide “opportunity” districts expand learning opportunities. Let’s hope voters are paying attention!

Jack Hazzard, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University, explains exactly how Governor Deal’s state takeover Opportunity School District will work: “The misguided Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, has pushed through an amendment to the Georgia Constitution (if approved by the electorate) to enable a czar within the Governor’s office to name 20 schools per year from around the state that are considered ‘failing schools’ based on the state’s use of high stakes testing. Using an arbitrary cutoff score of 60 on Georgia’s school evaluation measure, the state has identified a list of schools around Georgia that they believe are chronically failing.  The Georgia plan is essentially a ‘turnaround’ strategy of school reconstitution. There is a quartet of plans out there including transformation (fire the principal followed by changing around the school and testing the heck out of students to see if it worked), turnaround (fire the principal and… 50% of the teachers, and then test the heck out of the students), restart (bring in a charter school), and closure (a devastating measure, as Chicago can attest)… According to Senate Bill 133, which authorized an amendment to be placed on the November ballot, the state will use the ‘restart’ model, and turn all ‘chronically failing’ schools into charter schools.”

Today’s statewide “takeover school districts” are an expanded version of the old fashioned state takeovers, in which the state seized a bankrupt or low-scoring school district and imposed an overseer to clean things up. To my knowledge, these old-fashioned state occupations of existing school districts have not ever turned things around. The emergency austerity managers for the poorest school districts in Michigan are the latest examples. Newark, New Jersey’s public schools have been under state control for over twenty years, and New Jersey now seems to be considering demands from the citizens of Newark to bring back at least some local control.  The School District of Philadelphia has been overseen for years by a state-appointed School Reform Commission, and that hasn’t worked either, a situation made worse because the state legislature has reduced state funding and continued to operate without a fair distribution formula. Schools in Cleveland were managed by the state, which then gave back local control when the plan didn’t really work.

In recent years, we have had a wave of experimentation with a new plan—statewide “opportunity” and “achievement” districts that copy the Louisiana Recovery School District that took over all but a very few New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 along with other Louisiana schools that were said to be failing.  After more than a decade, Louisiana has ended the RSD in New Orleans, where schools, now all contracted out to charter school operators, are being returned to a loose form of local oversight despite that the charter boards really control their schools. Louisiana’s RSD has been copied as a model for more recent “achievement” and “opportunity” districts, but evidence has begun to demonstrate that the New Orleans model is not such a model after all.  The high test scores in the schools that were part of the RSD have derived from an odd factor in the Louisiana experiment: emergency legislation after the hurricane permitted the charter schools in the Louisiana RSD to be selective—that is to use all sorts of admissions screens including entrance examinations. According to researchers at Stanford University: “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores….” “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom. Only the top two sub-tiers within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor.” Some of the schools in the Louisiana Recovery School District were very successful in posting high test scores: they were the very schools that had selected the students who were likely to score well on standardized tests.

Then there is Rick Snyder’s disastrous Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Michigan—the state takeover failure that will keep dragging on until its already-announced demise at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.  It was formed as a collaborative plan between the state and Eastern Michigan University, but EMU’s board of regents pulled their support in shame last winter, activating an automatic 18 month sunset clause. The EAA originally hired John Covington as its chancellor, but he was fired after the experimental BUZZ online curriculum from Agilix Labs in Utah was shown to be not fully operational well after students had been using it for sometime. Internal SCANTRON testing by the EAA showed students to be thriving, but Michigan’s statewide exams proved EAA students had fallen far behind their counterparts across the state. Now, even though EAA is on its deathbed, Veronica Conforme, its current chancellor, has tried to pull strings to arrange that EAA, which owes $14.8 million to the bankrupt Detroit Public Schools will be forgiven this debt. Finally it was exposed in August that an agency called the School Empowerment Network, a Brooklyn, New York non-profit, established in February 2016, is now operating the Michigan Education Achievement Authority.  Mercedes Schneider, who has extensively researched the money behind schemes for the privatization of education, describes Veronica Conform’s new arrangement with the School Empowerment Network: “The district running Michigan’s lowest-performing schools awarded a $1.7 million training contract to a company that scored 8th out of 10 companies seeking the work…. The School Empowerment Network, or SEN, has no office, no listed phone number, an unfinished website and a seven-member staff. Its initial bid of $2.3 million was more than twice the $1 million bid submitted by the highest-scoring firm, Boston based Public Consulting Group, which has 60 offices in the U.S., Canada and Europe.  Most of SEN’s current staff worked formerly for New York City schools at the same time Veronica Conforme, the current chancellor of the financially troubled Education Achievement Authority, also worked there. The contract was awarded as the EAA is under siege because of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and an FBI investigation into kickback schemes involving vendors.”  The assumption is that the School Empowerment Network is being brought in to manage what is expected to be the shut-down of EAA at the end of this school year.

Several major reports in the past year alone condemn state takeover school districts.  A year ago the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools attacked state takeover districts for denying democratic control to citizens in usually poor, black and brown communities where the state takeover districts seize low-scoring schools: “Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected government is being dissolved altogether. This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority. Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of under-investment in their public schools…. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

Last December, the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform directly attacked Governor Deal’s plan in Georgia based on the experience in other states: “(E)ffective school reform isn’t done to communities, parents, students, educators and administrators.  It is done with them.  Top-down mandates, school takeovers, external corporate operators—these strategies have not proven successful in building high quality public education in Georgia, or anywhere else.  It is the teachers, the school leaders, the students and parent who must carry out and push forward any improvement strategies. It is these same, local individuals who will be asked to support their public schools with their tax dollars.  If they are not personally invested in change, change will fail.”

Then in February came the report from the Center for Popular Democracy: “State Takeovers of Low Performing Schools… highlights how school takeovers have proven to be a very ineffective method for yielding the benefit that the state uses to justify the intrusion on local citizens’ democratic rights… (S)chool takeovers have failed in Louisiana, Michigan and have had mixed results, at best, in Tennessee.  Nonetheless, to think that a state, that in most cases has less management capacity than the district… (it is) taking over, can produce a better outcome lacks clear strategy and ignores outcome data…  At best, these state takeover intrusions are bad policy, and at worst they create constitutional violations.  It cannot go unnoticed that an overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers serve poor African American and Latino students and voters. The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Detroit, that are predominately made up of people of color, raises serious federal civil rights issues.”

Two recent commentaries sum up the problems embodied in Governor Deal’s proposed constitutional amendment to create a statewide school takeover district in Georgia. Myra Blackmon of the Athens Banner-Herald summarizes the evidence from other states that have tried Governor Deal’s idea as she attacks proponents of Georgia’s constitutional amendment: “These  rescuers must have been living on another planet if they haven’t seen their proposed ‘solution,’ a state takeover with no accountability, go down in shame all over the country. They tried it in New Orleans and gave up because it didn’t work. They’ve been trying it in Nashville, and the confiscated schools are doing worse than they were when their ‘rescue’ began. They tried it in Detroit and 11 of 14 schools that were ‘rescued’ are still failing. The so-called ‘Opportunity School District’ is among the worst of a long string of dangerous ideas and policies forced on local school districts in Georgia… The language both on the ballot and in the enabling legislation sounds like a plan for everyone to hold hands and happily work to improve education. But that’s a lie.”

Finally, Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, calls Governor Deal’s plan a power grab: “The so-called ‘Opportunity School District,’ as its corporate funded multimillion dollar advertising campaign calls it, empowers the governor, through an agency he appoints, to decide what schools are ‘failing,’ usually by low scores on standardized tests. It authorizes the closing of a hundred Georgia public schools, almost entirely in black Georgia. The governor then gets to fire up a virtual school district stretching across the entire state, a district in which he alone appoints all the officials on whatever basis at whatever salary suits him.  OSD lets the governor create up to a hundred new charter schools in his virtual district to eat the funds which used to go to these public schools. The new OSD charter schools will make fortunes for their investors and contractors, who have already and will continue to donate generously to the governor and his friends. OSD’s charter schools will only be responsible to their own boards and investors, and of course the governor… The leading candidate to head this contraption is said to be Illinois Democrat Paul Vallas, who shredded the public schools of Chicago and Philly before being named the first head of the post-Katrina New Orleans Recovery School District….”

Social Impact Bonds (Pay for Success): Yet Another Privatization Scam

For those of us who know more about public education than Wall Street investment schemes, Valerie Strauss and Kenneth Saltman (education writer and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth) did us a favor last week. In her Washington Post column, Strauss published a column by Saltman explaining simply and clearly what Social Impact Bonds are, how they are now privately funding education projects at public expense, and problems with these investment instruments.

In her introduction to Saltman’s column, Valerie Strauss’s describes the use of Social Impact Bonds for funding education projects: “Within the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the K-12 education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, is a provision that provides for the use of federal funds by states and school districts for something known as ‘Pay for Success.’ The Obama administration has actually been funding Pay for Success programs in education and other areas for years, and Congress likes the concept… According to the Corporation for National & Community Service: ‘Pay for Success (PFS) has emerged as a new approach for government to partner with the private sector to fund proven community-based solutions. PFS is an innovative contracting and financing model that leverages philanthropic and private dollars to fund services up front, with the government, or other entity, paying after they generate results.  This strategy has gained strong bi-partisan support in Congress, as a strategy for increasing return on taxpayer dollars while improving the quality of services provided in our communities.’ If it sounds as if it’s a way for the private sector to make money off investments in pubic education, that’s because it is.”

Strauss provides an example of the use of Social Impact Bonds: “A Pay for Success program in Utah funded by Goldman Sachs earned a profit for the global investment bank for every student who went through an early-childhood program and was not referred for special education. According to the New York Times: ‘Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten  The bank received a payment for each of those children.'”

Saltman begins his piece by explaining who is pushing Pay for Success as a way to reform education: “Pay for Success, also known as Social Impact Bonds, is being heavily promoted by power corporate entities and politicians as a solution to intractable financial and political problems facing public education and other public services. They include investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan; philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation; politicians such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Massachusetts former governor and now Bain Capital Managing Director Deval Patrick; and professors at elite universities such as Harvard University.”  Saltman adds that Social Impact Bonds were imported from the United Kingdom in 2010, originally advocated by McKinsey Consulting, the Center for American Progress, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard: “Jeffrey Liebman went from Obama’s Office of Management and Budget to… the Government Performance Lab in the Kennedy School of Government dedicated to expanding Pay for Success.”

Why are Social Impact Bonds being heavily promoted? “In these schemes, investment banks pay for public services to be contracted out to private providers and stand to earn much more money than the cost of the service… Pay for Success is promoted… as an innovative financing technique that brings together social service providers with private funders and non-profit organizations committed to expanding social service provision.  In theory, Pay for Success expands accountability because programs are independently evaluated for their success and the government only pays the funder (the bank) if the program meets the metrics… Politicians (especially rightest Democrats) love Pay for Success because they can claim to be expanding public services without raising taxes or issuing bonds and will only have the public pay for ‘what works.'”

Saltman examines five claims made by supporters of Pay for Success and systematically rejects each of them.  I urge you to read his analysis carefully.  Here are merely some highlights.

Supporters of Pay for Success claim that Social Impact Bonds transfer risk from the public to the private sector for programs that may be controversial or risky. Chicago, for example, has used Pay for Success investment to add a pre-Kindergarten program for 2,600 public school children: “However, critics of Pay for Success point out that in reality there is little risk for investors of losing that nearly $17 million because the investors select already proven projects…. (I)nvestors make not only big profits but additionally receive positive public relations, good will, and image boosting… Risk is also mitigated for the banks by philanthropies such as Rockefeller or Bloomberg that guarantee repayment of the money the banks invest.”

Proponents of Pay for Success claim that private investment is necessary to motivate experimentation with public policy for which there does not exist the political will for change.  Saltman responds that polling indicates widespread public support for improvements in infrastructure and for investments in education, health and social service programs: “Parents and community members are not the ones who lack the political will.”

Programs paid for with Social Impact Bonds are said to be accountable because their very being depends on measurable proof that must be provided before investors can be repaid. But what about the manipulation of data and misuse of measures? (Even though I know about extensive educational research confirming the benefit of quality preschool programs, for example, my own central question when I read about the Utah preschool program, supported by Goldman Sachs Social Impact Bonds, that prevented children from being later diagnosed for special education is how it could have been known and measured even before preschool children entered the program whether they were likely later to be referred to services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And how could it be proven mathematically that the particular Pay for Success program prevented such later diagnosis?) In education there are enormous questions about the advisability, validity and reliability of measurement—quantitative assessment—of what is a qualitative process.  What about the underlying assumption of the whole scheme—that we have the capacity accurately to measure school quality?   William Mathis and Tina Trujillo, academics writing on behalf of the National Education Policy Center, recently questioned our tendency these days to trust only quantitative evaluation in education: “The problem is in defining what should be measured, how it should be tallied, and how multiple scores can be combined into one… The challenge is that schools have many purposes and each would lend itself to a different way of measuring and weighing… The companion difficulty is trying to validly represent an important feature with an imperfect measure….  Such decisions are central but are not empirical. They are based on our underlying values.”

Like Mathis and Trujillo, Saltman rejects the assumptions made by proponents of quantitative, test-based school accountability and those who support Social Impact Bonds that pay off only when a program can demonstrate measured success: “The message… is that the government spends billions of dollars on public services that are not measured and hence has ‘little to show for it.’  Implicitly here is an assumption that that which cannot be immediately measured quantifiably also cannot be justified as a public expense.  This presumes that the kinds of subjects that are less quantifiably measured such as the humanities or abstract sciences are less valuable and that funding in the future ought only to follow that which can be justified.”

Finally there is the whole contention of Pay for Success supporters that Social Impact Bonds will guarantee cost savings even as private actors ultimately make enormous profits: “The private sector project of Pay for Success is not merely one that involves the private capture of public wealth but also the public reframing of symbolic meanings that make such wealth capture possible, remaking common sense in ways that suggest that only the rich can promote just social change by pursuing their financial interests. Such ideologies suggest that the very private forces responsible for draining and weakening the public are in fact saviors for the public, that there is no alternative to markets in every social realm, that public citizens are nothing more than economic actors, and that these projects are apolitical rather than representing the interests and perspectives of capitalists over workers and most citizens.”

Saltman adds that privatization schemes like Social Impact Bonds also undermine the democratic process: “As with venture philanthropies, the public ends up not only financially subsidizing private banks but also subsidizing the loss of public control over public governance for public services.  With venture philanthropies, the subsidy takes public revenue in the form of tax breaks for rich donors and corporations. With Pay for Success, the public pays a premium for services that could have been provided directly through the government, and loses democratic governance control over the service.”

Tax Cuts Deliver Higher College Tuition, Fail to Grow the Overall Economy

I suppose you have noticed that substantive discussion of our nation’s problems has fallen by the way in this year’s election season. At best candidates are selling reform proposals without explaining exactly how such plans could be realized and precisely how they would address very real problems. Everybody seems to believe in free tuition at public colleges and universities, for example, but there are few clear answers about why college costs have skyrocketed in recent years and where the money to underwrite free tuition would come from.

Despite that historically our society has affirmed the role of public institutions paid for by taxes for ensuring essential services and protecting the good of the wider community, and despite that we have traditionally believed that the tax code should be progressive with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means, an anti-tax climate now dominates our politics. Funding for essential state services—social services for the poor, public K-12 education, and in recent years state colleges and universities—has fallen by the way.  Doug Webber, an economist at Temple University, one of Pennsylvania’s public universities, explains: “It’s tempting to blame Temple’s shiny buildings and new administrators for the big increase in tuition. But there’s another, much more important reason for the rising costs.” Since 2000, “Pennsylvania’s state government (has) cut its per-student appropriations by $6,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The rapid increase in the cost of college in recent decades—and the associated explosion in student debt, which now totals nearly $1.3 trillion nationally—is all too familiar to many Americans. But few understand what has caused the tuition boom, particularly at the public institutions that enroll roughly two-thirds of all students at four-year colleges. Many commenters, particularly in the popular press, focus on ballooning administrative budgets and extravagant student amenities…. but by far the biggest driver of rising tuitions for public colleges has been declining state funding for higher education.”

Webber examines the facts: “At most, about a quarter of the increase in college tuition since 2000 can be attributed to rising faculty salaries, improved amenities and administrative bloat.  By comparison, the decline in state support accounts for about three-quarters of the rising cost of college… (I)f Pennsylvania restored funding for higher education to its 2000 levels, Pennsylvania’s public research institutions could reduce tuition by nearly $4,000 per year without altering their budgets.  For students, the impact could be even greater once loan fees and interest were taken into account… If funding had held steady, universities could have built new buildings, hired more administrators and tended to other priorities while still keeping tuition hikes in check. With huge budget cuts, big tuition increases were inevitable.”

Data updated in mid-August from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), confirms that Webber’s analysis of public funding for state colleges and universities explains a national trend, not merely the sad reality in Pennsylvania, where the legislature has been rigidly committed to avoiding tax increases. “Of the states that have finalized their higher education budgets for the current school year, after adjusting for inflation, forty-six states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession… The average state is spending $1,598, or 18 percent, less per student than before the recession.”  While 38 states did increase per-student, higher education funding in the past year, the increases were too small to reverse the trend of diminishing state investment in institutions of higher learning.

Nine states have reduced per-student funding for their public colleges and universities by more than 30 percent since the 2008 recession began: Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

In the past year alone, Illinois cut per-student, higher education funding by $1,746, and five other states cut funding for their public colleges and universities by more than $250 per student: Alaska, Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Unlike the federal government, states are required by law to balance their budgets every year.  When states cut income taxes or make them regressive and when they cut corporate taxes, there are less dollars for essential services like public K-12 education, and public colleges and universities. It is a matter of simple arithmetic. What is often overlooked is that along with the rising expenses for students when college tuition grows, state economies suffer as middle class workers like school teachers and counselors are laid off and as low-paid adjuncts replace tenure-track college professors.

Here is John Hanna’s most recent update for the Associated Press on the ongoing pain caused by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s experiment with tax cutting: “Kansas saw its tax collections fall $10 million short of expectations in August, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is blaming a soft economy even as his critics make his tax-cutting policies a key issue in the year’s elections. The state Department of Revenue’s report (at the end of August 2016)… marked the fourth consecutive month that Kansas has failed to hit its revenue projections, and tax collections have fallen short 10 of the past 12 months… Kansas repeatedly has missed monthly revenue targets and struggled to balance its budget since GOP legislators heeded Brownback’s call to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus.”

Politicians like to promise that tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations will grow the economy—that prosperity will trickle down to the rest of us.  Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, rejects such supply-side economics: “True, you can find self-proclaimed economic experts claiming to find overall evidence that low tax rates spur economic growth, but such experts invariably turn out to be on the payroll of right-wing pressure groups (and have an interesting habit of getting their numbers wrong). Independent studies of the correlation between tax rates and economic growth, for example by the Congressional Research Service, consistently find no relationship at all. There is no serious economic case for the tax-cut obsession.”

Please Read this Penetrating Indictment of the Every Student Succeeds Act

Participating earlier this week in one of the Ohio Department of Education’s stakeholder meetings about the plan Ohio will be developing to submit to the U.S. Department of Education to comply with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I watched as many people tried valiantly to frame their objections to the test-and-punish policies that have dominated federal and state education policy for more than a generation. Most people have a clear sense that something is very wrong, but framing their objections in specific policy terms is much harder. On Monday, Valerie Strauss published among the most lucid explanations I have read of what’s wrong, how the new law reproduces much of the same policy as the old No Child Left Behind, and what those of us who value our nation’s system of public education ought to be saying as we respond to these policies.

In Monday’s column, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo are promoting the new book they have edited, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act. (This blog has covered that book here and here.) The book was published by the National Education Policy Center, where Mathis is the managing director. Please read Mathis and Trujillo’s column carefully and then plan to consult the academic research collected in this important book.

In this week’s column, Mathis and Trujillo set the context for the new Every Student Succeeds Act: “Washington was euphoric. In a barren time for bi-partisan cooperation late in 2015, both Democrats and Republicans were happy to get rid of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The K-12 education law was almost universally excoriated as being a failure—particularly in that most important goal of closing the achievement gap. Looking at long-term trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, gains were seen in some areas but the achievement gap was stuck. NCLB provided no upward blips on the charts. Thus, it is stunning that the successor law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed by Congress last December, is basically an extension of NCLB. Fundamentally, ESSA maintains the same philosophy and direction. It is still a standardized test-driven system that is punitive in nature. The main difference is that states are now responsible for designing the enforcement systems—which must be approved by the federal government. But states will not likely make many fundamental changes. They have invested heavily in their systems, as have local schools and districts. Test-based accountability has been the law of the land for the past 30 years—which means that it is the only system that many educators have experienced. Furthermore, vendors, textbook manufacturers, testing companies, consultants and the like have a strong bias toward protecting their investment—even while acknowledging that it didn’t work.”

What are the specific problems with No Child Left Behind-style school policy?  “First, children who are hungry, suffering from malnutrition and live in substandard conditions are highly unlikely to score well on tests. We will never close the achievement gap until we close the opportunity gap… While giving considerable lip service to the plight of poor children and children of color, we have not backed-up our rhetoric with our actions… The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB and ESSA are the latest versions) has always been intended to address these disparities, but it has never been adequately funded.”

“Second, test-based accountability does not improve learning.  Psychologist B.F. Skinner taught us more than 60 years ago that negative reinforcement has unpredictable and undesirable consequences. Yet, we embarked on a path of test and punishment whose inevitable outcome was sadly predictable.” Mathis and Trujillo add that third, the various punishments including the prescribed school turnarounds failed. These included firing teachers, closing schools, and changing public schools into charter schools. Fourth, “The invisible hand of the market was to be the solution primarily through charters and privatizing schools… A growing body of literature shows that charter schools do not perform better than traditional public schools and they segregate schools by race and by socio-economic status.”

What about the underlying assumption of the whole scheme—that we have the capacity accurately to measure school quality?  There is a big debate going on right now about whether states should provide a single summative “grade” for the state’s schools and school districts. Here is Mathis and Trujillo’s analysis: “The problem is in defining what should be measured, how it should be tallied, and how multiple scores can be combined into one… The challenge is that schools have many purposes and each would lend itself to a different way of measuring and weighing… The companion difficulty is trying to validly represent an important feature with an imperfect measure….  What is a valid combination and weighting of… measures?  Or does one exist?  Should the math scores be double the ELA (English Language Arts) scores?  Should they be divided by the attendance rate?  Such decisions are central but are not empirical. They are based on our underlying values.” And, “We learned that evaluating teacher and preparation programs creates a false scientism by placing too much trust in too weak a measure.”

Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms is a collection of peer-reviewed academic studies and is organized conceptually into sections. In this week’s column, Mathis and Trujillo summarize the conclusions of the academic research in each section of the new book.  I believe the first is the most important: “The Opportunity Gap—The primary finding was that students must have opportunities, funding, and resources sufficient to meet what the state requires of them. There have been some 70 or so state adequacy studies and with very few exceptions, they have indicated we are not meeting the needs of students.”

Mathis and Trujillo’s conclusions are sobering, and they reflect much of what I heard earlier this week at my round-table discussion at the Ohio ESSA stakeholder meeting I attended.  I wonder if the people collecting the comments from all the table-by-table conversations will tease out this message, even though I heard it reinforced in dozens of ways throughout the evening:

“The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing. This system has inadequately supported teachers and students, has imposed astronomically high goals, and has inflicted punishment on those for whom it has demanded impossible achievements.” “This diverse nation and our common good require all students to be well educated. Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and poor families. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than providing a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all. And we do not hold ourselves responsible for the basic denial of equal opportunities.”

I urge you to read and then re-read Mathis and Trujillo’s commentary published on Monday by Valerie Strauss.  It is a discerning indictment of the public school policy that now pervades our society.

U.S. Department of Education Finally Begins to Regulate Charters: Thank You Sen. Sherrod Brown

Charter Schools are defined by their freedom from regulation and oversight, but that freedom has been so regularly abused by unscrupulous operators that it seems the U.S. Department of Education is finally deciding to crack down, under pressure in this case from Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

Three months ago, on June 20, 2016, Senator Brown wrote a letter to John King, now U.S. Secretary of Education, demanding increased oversight of a large grant—$71 million—the federal Department of Education made to Ohio on September 28, 2015 to expand charter schools.  The grant application had been written by David Hansen, who, by September, had already been fired by the Ohio Department of Education for hiding the abysmal academic record of the state’s so-called “dropout recovery schools” and omitting their scores from a system he was creating as the Ohio Department prepared to begin holding charter schools more accountable. Hansen had also bragged in his federal grant application that Ohio had already begun more aggressively regulating charters. After the U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio the $71 million grant at the end of September 2015, however, it was pointed out that the Ohio legislature had not yet passed the regulations for which Hansen (in July) had given the state credit. (The Ohio Legislature later adopted the most basic and minimal charter school oversight when it passed Ohio House Bill 2 on October 7, 2015).

When Ohio Senator Brown wrote to U.S. Secretary John King in June, 2016, the $71 million Ohio grant had been put on hold for months, as the U.S. Department of Education investigated Ohio’s dealings with charter schools. In his June 20 letter, Senator Brown wrote: “In your November 2015 response letter to the members of the Ohio Congressional delegation, you outlined a number of steps ED has taken and will continue to take to verify the accuracy and completeness of ODE’s grant application. I appreciate these steps, but more must be done to provide order to the state’s chaotic charter school sector. In light of this report, I ask that you examine the performance of Ohio charter schools who have received CSP (federal Charter Schools Program) grants to determine whether grant recipients are failing or closing at a higher rate than those in other states and how the academic performance of CSP grant recipients in Ohio compares to CSP grant recipients nationwide. I further ask that when Ohio has satisfied all necessary conditions for this grant money to be released that you appoint a special monitor to review every expenditure made pursuant to this grant in order to ensure that all funds are being spent for their intended purpose. Ohio’s current lack of oversight wastes taxpayer’s money and undermines the ostensible goal of charters: providing more high-quality educational opportunities for children. There exists a pattern of waste, fraud, and abuse that is far too common and requires extra scrutiny.”

Last Wednesday, September 14, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education finally released the $71 million grant, but, as Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer, there are now many conditions: “In a letter to the Ohio Department of Education today, the grant was declared ‘high risk’ because of the poor academic performance of the state’s charters and the struggles the state has had in implementing portions of House Bill 2, the state’s charter reform bill passed last fall by the state legislature… The letter states: ‘As part of this high-risk designation, we are imposing certain High-Risk Special Conditions on ODE’s CSP (Charter Schools Program) SEA (State Education Agency) grant that will help ODE and the Department more clearly determine ODE’s ongoing compliance with applicable requirements’ so that it will be more transparent and so that any issues can be identified and fixed quickly.”

Here are the conditions as reported by O’Donnell:

  • “(T)he state cannot give out grants to schools as it has in the past. It must have prior approval from the U.S. Department of Education before transferring any money.
  • “The department must evaluate dropout recovery schools better.
  • “The state must report its progress four times each year.
  • “ODE must hire an independent monitor of the grant program.
  • “The state must create a Grant Implementation Advisory Committee.
  • “And it must do demanding ratings of the oversight agencies known as ‘sponsors’ in Ohio, but as ‘authorizers’ in most other states.”

Ohio’s problems with the controversial $71 million Charter Schools Program grant are not the first time anyone has noticed the federal Department of Education’s failure to oversee the Charter Schools Program. A year ago in June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—a coalition of national organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union—sent a letter to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan complaining that while the Department had granted $1.7 billion to states for expansion of charter schools since 2009, the Department of Education’s own Inspector General had been raising alarms about the Department’s own lack of any kind of quality control.

The Alliance’s letter to Arne Duncan cited formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight. The State Education Agencies that lack capacity to manage the programs are the 50 state departments of education.

In the June 2015 letter to Arne Duncan, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools enumerates the problems discovered by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General: that the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states, that OII “lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring,” that none of the three states selected as samples for investigation by the Office of Inspector General—Arizona, California, and Florida—sufficiently monitored the charter schools funded through the Department of Education’s State Education Agency grants, that 26 charter schools in these three states were shown by the Office of Inspector General to have closed after being awarded $7 million, and that even when the schools closed, nobody tracked “what happened to assets that had been purchased with federal funds.”

Thank you, Senator Sherrod Brown for doggedly demanding that the U.S. Department of Education improve oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program. Please keep on keeping on.