School Closure: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

This blog will take a week-long mid-summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, August 1, 2016.

In an important piece published in The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project, and Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, describe three complaints filed in 2014—on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.  The complaints protest massive school closures in New Orleans, Newark, and Chicago, where 50 schools were shuttered at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

One of the ways students in America’s cities are being deprived of basic opportunities is “through systematic and targeted school closures. We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities.  Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated.  Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.”

Here is the substance of the complaints: “The complaints challenged the disproportionate closures of traditional public schools in these cities. In New Orleans, the closures of the last five traditional public schools impacted over 1000 African-American students and only 5 White students. In Chicago, Black students were 26 times more likely to be impacted by school closures than White students.  In Newark, Black students were 51% of student enrollment, but 86% of students impacted by school closures.”

After a two year investigation, the Office of Civil Rights has reached an agreement with the Newark Public Schools that acknowledges the disproportionate impact of school closures on the city’s African American students and confirms that the school closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” The agreement requires the Newark school district to investigate whether and how students from closed schools were affected academically and how their safe passage to school, and their access to special services (for disabled students) were impacted when schools were closed. Further, the district must evaluate and report on how the location of school facilities and the pupil capacity of existing buildings were affected and how the current location and availability of facilities affects Newark students’ overall access to education.

Judith Browne Dianis and Jitu Brown remind readers of the many personal and community implications of the school closures that can be neither investigated nor explained as a response to the civil rights complaint: “However, the agreement fails to address the many intangible harms of school closures—like the loss of critical relationships with teachers, staff and counselors.”

And then there are the causes—the factors that have persistently undermined urban schools in underfunded school districts serving masses of very poor children: “Crucial analysis missing from this narrative is that for decades schools that serve predominantly Black students experienced intense and consistent discrimination through… disinvestment, over-policing, and unequal distribution of resources.”

Under federal policy for the past two decades—the sanctions of No Child Left Behind and the priorities of Race to the Top—privatization, not investment, has been promoted as a solution to the problems in urban school districts  The idea has been to turn over so-called “failing” schools to Education Management or Charter Management Organizations:  “It is clear that privatization and the courting of charter schools are the real goals—choosing these over any proven method of remedying educational racism.  Several shuttered public schools had achieved consistent, documented growth yet were still closed because they failed to achieve an ever shifting standard set by state officials. These same officials, that ‘grease the rails’ for school privatization by eliminating democracy through mayoral control, state takeover and other schemes, never address the issue of equity in public education.”

“Time and time again, experimental policies and practices are imposed on Black and Brown communities over the resounding objection by the same communities.  We pay taxes and the return on our investment is intentional inequity, enriching politically connected school profiteers. This is an ugly practice that must stop. Education inequity in the United States, amplified by school privatization, is indeed a human rights issue.”

Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

Political Power of the Online Charter Czars: Can It Be Broken?

Ohio’s Steve Dyer reports in his personal blog that defenders of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the notorious ECOT online charter school, have even been lobbying delegates to the Republican National Convention here in Cleveland against Ohio’s crack-down on e-schools which seem to have been collecting millions of dollars every year from the state for phantom students.  Dyer writes: “And now, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education—the state’s ironically named and most egregious defender of poor-performing charter schools… slipped a letter under the doors of delegates to the Republican National Convention….”  The letter “blames sneaky Democratic bureaucrats at ODE (Ohio Department of Education) for ECOT’s problems….”  In fact, as Dyer explains, passage of a bill modestly to increase regulation of Ohio’s charter sector was passed with bipartisan support.  But now, as Ohio’s largest and most profitable charter stands to lose millions of dollars because it has been inflating the per-pupil attendance on which state funding is based, powerful backers are appealing to anyone they can to try to keep their school operating and keep the tax dollars flowing into their profits.

Patrick O’Donnell reports for The Plain Dealer that ECOT continues to try to beat state oversight.  ECOT was denied a court injunction to block an inspection by state regulators, who then went to the school to begin the scheduled attendance audit only to be denied access to the school’s records: “When Judge Stephen McIntosh rejected ECOT’s argument… investigators went to the school, as they had scheduled weeks earlier, to see records of when students were logged in to the school’s system to take lessons. ECOT, the state says, would not make those records available. ‘ECOT is refusing to provide ODE personnel with access to the log-in/log-out data for the students that ODE identified in connection with the year-end review,’ Douglas Cole, a lawyer hired by ODE, said in a letter to ECOT on Tuesday.  The audit has been postponed for two weeks to give ECOT another chance to provide records.”

O’Donnell quotes Neil Clark, the powerful Columbus lobbyist who represents ECOT, and who says ECOT will go back to court: “Our attorneys are in the room and they’ve made it very clear that any information that the Department of Education asks outside of our contract that they will need to file other paperwork with the court and make a request to the court that we submit the other data.”  (This blog has covered ECOT’s efforts to block state regulation here.)

Ohio is not the only state attempting to regulate online charter schools.  Howard Blume reports for the Los Angeles Times that, “The (California) state attorney general’s office has reached an $8.5 million settlement with an online charter school it had accused of false advertising, misleading parents and inadequate instruction.”  The state of California has been investigating 13 branches of the California Virtual Academy, affiliated with K12 Inc., the nation’s largest chain of fully online charter schools.  Blume explains that K12 has located the authorizers of its branches in very small school districts. California law pays an authorizer fee of 1 or 2 percent of the online school’s revenue to the sponsor for the cost of oversight. Very small school districts in need of funds have been sponsoring huge K12 branches that draw students from the across the populous county where each tiny school district-sponsor is located. Sponsorship has worked as a fund-raising venture for the small school districts but failed when such districts lacked any capacity to provide oversight.  While K12 agreed to the $8.5 million settlement, it did not agree that it committed the alleged violations: that the online branches of K12 misled parents by promising that they offered the required courses for admission to California’s public universities and that K12 promised for each student a flexible learning plan.  A second complaint based on testimony of a whistle blower had also accused K12 “of submitting fraudulent student attendance records to obtain more state education funds than they were entitled to… The (second) complaint alleged that teachers were pressured to record a full day of attendance for 30 minutes of work or to sign fabricated attendance registers.”  While K12 paid its fine to the state of California, it will be important to watch whether K12 cleans up its practices there and whether it is called to account in the other states in which it operates.

Oklahoma, whose legislature has provided stronger regulatory power, is reported by EdSurge to have shut down ABLE Charter, an online school designed to serve homeless students. EdSurge quotes Oklahoma Watch: “The allegations, the Watch writes, are ‘inadequate financial reporting, failure to comply with the Open Meeting Act, inability to maintain a four-member governing board and inadequate organization.’  The Watch reports that, of the 93 students enrolled at ABLE at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, just 12 remained until the end of the year, a steep dropout rate.”  States have been more successful in shutting down small operations like ABLE, but less likely to control the huge for-profits like K12 and ECOT.

In the past year, major reports across the political spectrum have discredited the full-time online academies. Last fall came the trio of reports from Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Stanford’s Center for Research On Education Outcomes (CREDO).  A press release summarizes the joint findings of the three reports: “Innovative new research suggests that students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared to their counterparts in conventional schools.”  The press release quotes Mathematica fellow Brian Gill: “Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide.”  Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, comments: “The report recommends that policymakers consider moving online schools out of the charter context, or craft unique provisions specific to online charters.”  The Stanford CREDO analysis charges that, on average, students at online charters lose ground academically: “It would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year.”

Then just last month—June 2016, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 50CAN, all firm supporters of the charter school sector released a major report which warns: “The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action to state leaders and authorizers across the country. It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively than it currently does for the students it serves. It is also time for authorizers to close chronically low-performing virtual charter schools. Our organizations plan to work actively with state leaders and authorizers as they embark on these efforts.”

Of course in state legislatures like Ohio’s it is the powerful contributors from the largest,and often lowest-performing for-profit schools who have the political power to block such efforts.  In Ohio, ECOT is operated by William Lager, who owns the two for-profit companies that provide all the services and curriculum for ECOT.  Plunderbund reported in 2014 that since its founding in 2001, William Lager had made a profit of over $130 million from IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management, his two privately held companies, and that from 2000 to 2014, he had made political donations to Ohio politicians totaling over $2 million.

How Has Opposition to Corporate School Reform Evolved?

The Republicans began their convention here in Cleveland yesterday, and the Democrats will meet soon in Philadelphia. The political season is upon us, with not much attention to the policies that affect our public schools. But I believe support for important reform in public schools has evolved considerably over the past couple of decades, despite that we still see intense advocacy for corporate reform supported by philanthropists and think tanks promoting the supposed efficiency of markets.

In 2010, Diane Ravitch, the education historian who had supported corporate reform as a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, did an about face in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Basic Books has recently published a revised edition. To mark the new edition of Ravitch’s important book, Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post recently published an interview with Ravitch and in a subsequent column an excerpt from the revised edition. Ravitch’s description of the evolution of her own thinking seems to me a good summary of the developing consensus of today’s thoughtful advocates who want to preserve a strong system of public education that serves all children and protects their rights.

When she published The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010, Ravitch rejected her previous support for the kind of accountability-based school “reform” defined by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act because, she said, she had discovered it didn’t work.  It neither raised overall school achievement nor closed gaps in scores among racial and economic groups of children. In her 2010 book, Ravitch also categorically rejected the Obama-Duncan philosophy of education epitomized by Race to the Top and the Bloomberg-Klein commitment to the explosive growth of charter schools that dominated the enormous New York City school district at the time.  She castigated the ideas of a group of super-wealthy philanthropists she called The Billionaire Boys Club: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons.

In her interview last month with Strauss, Ravitch describes her delight when Basic Books invited her to publish a revised edition, because over time her thinking has continued to develop: “As time passed, I realized that there was one key point in the book that I found embarrassing. In the final chapter, I reiterated my long-standing support for national standards and a national curriculum… The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that national standards and a national curriculum was another truly bad idea.” Ravitch describes the new edition in which: “I quite bluntly admit… that the pursuit of national standards, national curriculum and national tests is a dead end… Even in states that have the same standards and tests, there are achievement gaps, reflecting wealth and poverty. Politicians continue to claim that making tests harder will make students smarter. But tests are not an instructional method; they are a measure… What we now know, because of the failure of the Common Core, is that increasing the difficulty of the material to be learned and the rigor of the tests widens the achievement gaps. Children who are already struggling to keep up will fall farther behind.”

When Strauss asks how Ravitch believes the anti-corporate-reform movement, of which Ravitch has been a leader, has changed the conversation, Ravitch answers: “Fewer people today believe that charters have some special magic; more people understand now that those with the highest scores exclude low-performing students or push them out.  The virtual charter industry, which in my view is a Ponzi scheme, has been thoroughly debunked by research reports and newspaper exposes… Our biggest failure to date is that we have not been able to break through to government officials. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton showed that they understood the widespread parent opposition to high-stakes testing or the dangers of privatization.”

Asked about the two likely candidates of the major political parties, Ravitch answers: “My first guess is that (Hillary Clinton) will follow the same policies as Obama, but within the confines of the new federal law, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).  The ESSA is only marginally better than No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.  Many of her advisers come from the (nonprofit) Center for American Progress, which has strongly supported testing, test based teacher evaluation, Common Core, charter schools, and all of the other errors of the Obama administration. But she is a very smart woman. I am hopeful that she will forge her own path.”

About Donald Trump, Ravitch comments: “He has said two things: ‘I love charter schools.’ ‘I will get rid of Common Core.’  I am willing to bet that he has no idea what Common Core or charters are.  He doesn’t know that the president and the Education Department has no power to ‘get rid of Common Core.’  The charter industry should welcome its new friend, one who shares their disregard for public schools.”

In a follow-up column, Strauss prints an excerpt from the new edition of The Death and Life of the Great American School System—an excerpt that defines Ravitch’s primary concern today:

“Education is integrally related to the society in which it is embedded. It is intended to improve society by improving the knowledge and skills of the people, but it works incrementally over years, not overnight… But schools cannot by themselves solve the problems of poverty and inequality… School reform therefore must occur in tandem with social reform. A good place to start is investing in prenatal care…. Next in an agenda of social reform would be an investment in early childhood education, from birth to five years.  Children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development is likely to be impaired if they lack the basic necessities of life during these crucial years… Poverty matters. An exceptional school here or there may break the pattern for a tiny number of students… but the pattern will persist so long as social conditions remain unchanged, so long as there are districts and schools with intense concentrations of students who are both racially segregated and impoverished. We must set national goals to reduce poverty and increase racial integration.  Schools, too must certainly improve…  After many years in which the nation has placed its highest priority on test-based accountability, we have little to show for it other than small increments in test scores, billions squandered on testing and test preparation, and vast numbers of teachers and administrators demoralized by utopian goals and harsh sanctions.”

Rapid Charter Expansion Is Primary Cause of Detroit Schools’ Fiscal Catastrophe

Here is how David Arnsen of Michigan State University and his colleagues frame one of the issues they investigate in a new study on the impact of rapid growth of charters on the fiscal conditions in school districts in the state of Michigan.  The study will be published this autumn in the Journal of Education Finance:  “Thus far, the state has appointed emergency managers in three school districts (Detroit, Muskegon Heights, Highland Park), has dissolved two school districts (Inkster and Saginaw Buena Vista) and established consent decrees in one (Pontiac)… All except Inkster experienced large declines in enrollment between 2002 and 2012.  Compared to districts statewide, all six of these districts experienced much higher loss of resident students to charter schools and higher shares of special education students.”

The researchers conclude: “(T)he deficit districts in which the state intervened were significantly different from deficit districts in which it did not intervene on each of the demographic characteristics examined.  They had significantly higher shares of African American students (86% versus 40%), and significantly higher shares of low-income students (85% versus 67%).  Districts in which the state intervened also had significantly higher charter penetration (29% versus 11%) of resident students.”

The authors caution that their findings about Michigan may not perfectly apply in other states due to Michigan’s method of funding schools.  Michigan reformed its school funding in 1994 to shift funding responsibility primarily to the state; most states instead  balance state and local responsibility for raising revenue.  And Michigan’s system allows students transferring to a charter or to another school district through inter-district public school choice to carry all of their financing with them. However, due to fixed costs and laws that protect services for particular students, school districts are unable quickly to achieve economies of scale to compensate for declining enrollment.

Even when emergency managers have imposed austerity by raising class sizes and eliminating elective courses, Michigan’s most vulnerable school districts have, due to school choice, faced financial ruin.  The near bankruptcy of the Detroit Public Schools, for example, has occurred during years’ of state imposed austerity by a succession of emergency fiscal managers: “(T)he grounds for this emergency intervention under state law are strictly financial.  State policy presumes that local district fiscal distress is caused by local officials’ poor decision-making and management…. Our findings, however, indicate that state school finance and choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts.  Most of the explained variation in district fund balances is due to changes in districts’ state funding, enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and special education students whose required services are inadequately reimbursed by the state.”

Jennifer Berkshire interviewed David Arnsen, the report’s lead author, and the interview was reprinted on Friday by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.  In the interview Arnsen very concisely explains the results of the new research study: “We saw very significant and large impacts of charter penetration on district fund balances for different thresholds, whether there were 15, 20, or 25 percent of the students going to charter schools. That was really striking. At every one of those thresholds, the higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances.  They’re big jumps, and they’re all very significant statistically.  What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20 percent or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.” “We have districts getting into extreme fiscal distress because they’re losing revenue so fast.”  The report examines the budgets of school districts in “central cities statewide and their foundation revenue, which is both a function of per-pupil funding and enrollment.  They had lost about 22 percent of their funding over a decade.  If you put that in inflation adjusted terms, it means that they had lost 46 percent of their revenue in a span of 10 years… The emergency managers…. had all the authority and they cut programs and salaries, but they couldn’t balance the budgets in Detroit and elsewhere, because it wasn’t about local decision making, it was about state policy.  And when they made those cuts, more kids left and took their state funding with them.”

In the interview, Arnsen explains further:  “The law presumes that financial problems in these districts are caused by poor decision making of local officials, and this justifies their displacement through emergency management.  Yet our findings suggest that state school finance and choice policies were in large part responsible for the underlying financial problems.”

Arnsen’s study documents what many have suspected: the rapid growth of charter schools is itself a factor destabilizing so-called “portfolio school districts” which are conceptualized as school marketplaces managed like a business portfolio in which new schools are opened and so-called “failing” schools are shut down in a constant cycle of churn.  Arnsen concludes his interview with Berkshire: “A place like Detroit is just chaotic. It’s the foremost example nationally of the adverse consequences of a poorly regulated education market… Our charter sector in Michigan is unusual nationally in the extent to which the schools are run by for-profit management companies… (W)e have a situation in Michigan where the charter interests are very influential in the state legislature.  It makes it much harder in this state to reach consensus not only on coherent choice and finance policies, but also on policy relating to all sorts of education issues….”

In other words, in a state where far-right Dick DeVos and his Great Lakes Education Project along with owners of the for-profit charters are actively buying political influence, it is very difficult to get the legislature to regulate what is an out of control charter school marketplace.

Ohio Pays Millions While Students at ECOT Average Only an Hour a Day at Online School

Jim Siegel reported yesterday for the Columbus Dispatch that despite Judge Stephen McIntosh’s refusal to grant the restraining order demanded by the state’s largest online charter school to prevent a state audit of its attendance records, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) continues to refuse to share its records openly with the state’s investigators:

“Despite a judge’s ruling this week, the state’s largest online charter school has apparently declined to hand over all records requested by the Ohio Department of Education so it can conduct an attendance audit.  After a Franklin County judge on Monday denied ECOT’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the state from conducting the audit, state investigators moved into the school’s Columbus headquarters to begin reviewing data. But, according to an e-mail sent Tuesday from the Education Department’s attorney to ECOT’s legal counsel, the information ECOT provided was not complete…. The standoff is the latest development in an ongoing battle between the Education Department and the politically well-connected online school….”

Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter shares some of the back story about Ohio’s push to audit attendance at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which collected over $100 million last year to educate 15,000 students online. Apparently an initial audit of school attendance records earlier in the spring turned up some shocking news: “An initial review this spring raised red flags that students at ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school, may have done far less work than required.” “‘Those (ECOT’s) records did not substantiate the number of educational hours for which ECOT had billed ODE,’ the state’s lawyers added.”

O’Donnell continues: “Many students at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) online charter school spend just an hour a day online taking their classes… all the while the state pays the school as if they were full-time students.  That detail was included in a filing for the state in Franklin County Common Pleas Court Monday as the Ohio Department of Education audits the giant charter school’s records.” “Unlike a traditional school, where teachers can take attendance every day, students at online schools like ECOT take classes at home by computer.  That makes it hard to measure whether they are actively taking classes…. Since charter schools are paid on a per-student basis by the state, there are millions of dollars at stake in determining which kids qualify as attending a school.”

The problem is that ECOT inadequately tracks active participation by its students.  Siegel quotes the spring’s initial audit: “The department ‘tentatively concluded that it appeared that ECOT tracks student participation time, but that ECOT does not adjust its (full-time student) FTE submission according to this participation data,’ the department wrote in a court filing. After unsuccessfully gaining access to ECOT’s full log-in data, (attorney Douglas) Cole wrote that as of Feb. 1 the law requires each online charter to ‘keep an accurate record of each individual student’s participation in learning opportunities each day’ and be kept in a manner that can be submitted to the state.  Cole said the Education Department maintains that, even before that law change, ECOT had an obligation to maintain accurate duration records.”

It is well known that William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two privately held for-profit companies that provide all services for ECOT, has been among Ohio’s most generous contributors to the political coffers of Republicans in the legislature. In its latest report, the Dispatch notes that Lager “has given more than $1.2 million in disclosed campaign contributions, the vast majority to Republican lawmakers.”

This week, Lager’s best supporter in the legislature seems to be Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, who asked the Department of Education to delay its audit for a week.  In his report for the Dispatch, Siegel explains why Schuring says he wanted a delay: “I told them I was disappointed they wouldn’t delay just one week to allow me to at least see if there was a way to come to come kind of reasonable agreement.” The Dispatch continues: “Schuring said he wants a better understanding of the differences in learning between an online school and a traditional school.”

In March, Senate minority leader, Joe Schiavoni, D-Youngstown, proposed a bill to regulate attendance at the online schools, but the legislature did not act on it before recessing until after the November election.  Rep. Schuring is reported by Siegel to be “uncertain if lawmakers will act after the November election.”

This blog has covered ECOT extensively.

Priorities Gone Wrong: Prison Spending Skyrockets, Leaves School Spending Behind

The U.S. Department of Education just released a report, State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education, that reinforces what is known about the alarming explosion in the rate of incarceration in the United States.

The Education Department’s report is about budgets—across states and localities: “From 1979-80 to 2012-13, public PK (PreK)-12 expenditures increased by 107 percent (from $258 to $534 billion), while total state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324 percent (from $17-$71 billion)—triple the rate of increase in education spending…  All states had lower expenditure growth rates for PK-12 education than for corrections, and in the majority of the states, the rate of increase for corrections was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for education… In 24 states, the growth rate in per capita corrections spending was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for per-pupil PK-12 education spending.”  Finally, “At the postsecondary level, the contrast was even starker: from 1989-90 to 2012-13, state and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent while state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat.”

The new report confirms the trend in K-12 education spending reported last winter by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.”  State governments are spending less on public education than they used to.  Most of the increases in education spending in the past few decades have been for special services mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The new report from the Department of Education further confirms the reality of the exploding rate of incarceration over recent decades: “(T)he number of people incarcerated in state and local correctional facilities more than quadrupled over the past few decades, rising from about 490,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2014, due in part to the enactment of additional, often lengthy mandatory minimum sentence laws. Incarceration rates have increased despite large decreases in crime rates, which declined by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014… (T)he U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world…”

Public education and racial justice advocates have been pressing school districts to address one factor that has contributed to growing incarceration of youths and young adults: school discipline policies that immediately involve the police rather than locating discipline procedures within the school.  Such policies have been shown to have contributed significantly to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”  Add to this the growth of suspension and expulsion that puts students with disciplinary infractions out of school and at greater risk of getting into deeper trouble.  Successful advocacy by civil rights groups has successfully pressured the U.S. Department of Education to insist that school districts avoid overly punitive discipline policies and institute “restorative” programs that support better behavior and conflict mediation.

But the rapid growth of incarceration has also impacted children and young people by undermining families, intensifying poverty, and tearing apart neighborhoods when parents are sent away to jails and prisons.  While the implications for children when parents are incarcerated has not been sufficiently covered in the press, sociologists have explored what the trend means for the children left behind.

In Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, Robert Putnam explains: “For both black children and white children, the risk of having a parent imprisoned by the time they reached 14 rose significantly between the birth cohort of 1978… and the birth cohort of 1990, and that risk was concentrated among children whose parents were less educated… This period of exploding incarceration is precisely the period in which single-parent families became more and more common in the less educated, lower-income stratum of the population.  Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but mass incarceration has certainly removed a very large number of young fathers from poor neighborhoods, and the effects of their absence, on white and nonwhite kids alike, are known to be traumatic, leaving long-lasting scars… Paternal incarceration (independent of other facts about a child’s background, like the parents’ education and income and race) is a strong predictor of bad educational outcomes, like getting poor grades and dropping out of school… Having a dad in prison is… one of the most common themes in the lives of poor kids.” (Our Kids, pp. 76-77)

Patrick Sharkey examines the effect of the explosive growth of incarceration: “Accompanying the nationwide ‘War on Drugs’ and the proliferation of ‘tough on crime’ political rhetoric was the emergence of sentencing commissions, the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences, and the scaling back or elimination of parole across the states… These changes have led to the emergence of the prison as a central institution in the black community…  When young men go to prison they are not only separated from their families; they are separated from the opportunity to obtain education, experience, or skills that are useful in the labor force. When they return, the obstacles they face as they attempt to reenter society are daunting. Returning prisoners often face overwhelming child support obligations that accumulate during their time in prison…. Without the realistic prospect of stable employment, it is extremely unlikely that these men can support a family…. The result is a segment of the community that is detached from the legal labor market and detached from the family unit.” (Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, pp. 75-76)

Sharkey examines the challenges mass incarceration poses for the establishment and maintenance of families that can support children: “What does it mean for a community when almost one out of every ten of its children has a father who is incarcerated? We are only beginning to know the answer to this question but a set of recent studies has already demonstrated a strong association between parental incarceration and children’s mental health, aggressiveness, and subsequent involvement with the criminal justice system.” (Stuck in Place, pp. 77-78)

Sharkey’s focus is the convergence of a mass of structural injustices in the poorest neighborhoods of our nation’ cities: “These communities are the product of the economic transformation that has taken place in urban centers over the past several decades, in which the jobs that supported a growing black working class disappeared over time.  They are the result of the erratic federal commitment to America’s cities, reflected in major cuts to housing, to economic development, and to the welfare state at the same time that joblessness in urban enters was growing and the need for support becoming more acute.  Finally, these communities are the product of the punitive response to the widespread economic dislocation, in which increasingly harsh punishment has led to levels of imprisonment that are unmatched in the world and that are targeted toward the by-products of deindustrialization: young, less educated, minority men.  Perhaps more than any other policy, demographic trend, or economic change in the post civil rights era, the explosion in incarceration rates from the 1970s onward has the potential to create lasting damage to black communities that may extend on to the next generation.” (Stuck in Place, pp. 78-79)

Here is Robert Putnam’s summation of our society’s current challenge: “Any serious effort to deal with the family and community facets of the opportunity gap should include efforts to reduce incarceration for nonviolent crime and enhance rehabilitation.  Incarceration, especially paternal incarceration, was part of the story of virtually every poor kid we met in this study.” (Our Kids, p. 247)