Another Key Figure Changes His Mind: Challenges the Test-and-Punish Conventional Wisdom

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.”  “Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem… within a considerable range (the individual)…. may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable…” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

The idea that school achievement can be fixed in our poorest communities by testing students and punishing so-called “failing” schools where test scores are low, by holding teachers accountable, by privatizing what are described—even by Democrats like Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, in the words of conservative Milton Friedman—as  “government monopoly schools,” has come to be widely accepted since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002.  No Child Left Behind celebrated the philosophy of test-and-punish, and test-and-punish has been the conventional wisdom now for almost fifteen years, more than enough time for many students to go all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Galbraith was right: support for this philosophy became bipartisan.  The George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration have implemented the test-and-punish conventional wisdom with a vengeance.

The conventional wisdom, however, does seem to be influenced by people who we think are expert enough to know, particularly if they have supported the conventional wisdom and then changed their minds. It seems that the knowledgeable people who never accepted the conventional wisdom have a lot less influence even though they may have been wise enough never to have gone along in the first place.  Hence we have all the experts in the field of education whom we ignore, because, as Arne Duncan has repeatedly pointed out, they just support that weak educational status quo.  The list of these people is endless, but I’ll name some of the stars to whom we ought to have been listening: Linda Darling-Hammond and James Comer and Jean Anyon and Pedro Noguera and Rudy Crew and Pauline Lipman and Deborah Meier and Richard Rothstein and Gary Orfield and Mike Rose and David Kirp and Gene Glass and David Berliner and Susan Eaton and George Wood and Helen Ladd, and John Kuhn and and Sonya Nieto and Lisa Delpit and Gregory Michie and Paulo Freire and John Dewey and John Jackson and David Sciarra and Michael Rebell.  There are dozens of others I am forgetting in this quick catalog. These are the experts who have defined and defended good teaching and the role of out-of-school factors on school achievement and the importance of the whole child and the urgent need for well funded public schools and access to education as a civil right for every child. Because these people base their opinions on academic expertise or a lifetime of work, we consider them ringers and we pretty much ignore their arguments.

We pay more attention if someone who originally got sidetracked into the conventional wisdom or who strongly believes in the principles behind the conventional wisdom recants and changes sides.  This has, after all, become a battle with two sides.  If enough of these unlikely folks change their minds and keep on changing their minds, just maybe the conventional wisdom will shift a bit.

Today this blog will quickly review five years’ of mind-changing and then add another defector from the conventional wisdom to the catalog of mind changers.  First there was Diane Ravitch who, as a former member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution, wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010 to announce her change of heart and mind and basically to apologize for her long, intense support for test-and-punish school accountability.  In 2013, Diane published another book, Reign of Error, to establish her new views more strongly.  Her about face, as a former assistant secretary of education, launched a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom.

Then last fall there was Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform is a school choice scheme that imagines a big city school district like a business portfolio filled with public and private schools.  The district is imagined to promote the successful schools and shed the failures as a businessman would build a successful investment portfolio.  But last summer Robin Lake went to Detroit, became dismayed by what she observed, and wrote a  scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation she found there:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.” Lake did not entirely recant the conventional wisdom, but she raised some serious questions that let people know she was very disturbed about the implementation of the idea she had been promoting.

Then Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution came to the Cleveland City Club to talk about the functioning of the charter sector in Ohio.  She was asked a question about the future of charter schools in the state, and here is what she said: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  Later Raymond tried to backtrack a little and blame the lack of information being provided to the parents choosing schools, but even so, she strongly challenged the conventional wisdom.

Then last month the Education Trust-Midwest condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan.  Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, but its new report worries about out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Michigan: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year.  Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”

Now there is another defection, and this is one of another kind altogether.  David Hornbeck was Maryland’s state superintendent of public instruction from 1976 to 1988, and then superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1994-2000.  Hornbeck is a retired public school educator who—as the test-and-punish, pro-charter school “reform” began to take off leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002—believed it would be possible to maintain a strong system of public schools and at the same time try out the new reforms and have them enrich each other.  Hornbeck believed at that time that you could improve things by having it both ways.  This week in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Hornbeck declares he was mistaken: “As Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students.  The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong… New policy should not build on current inequities and flawed assumptions….”

Hornbeck’s defection is very strong.  He resides in Maryland and he writes in response to a new proposal in that state that regulation of charter schools be strengthened.  But Hornbeck rejects privatization through charter schools; he is not merely recommending stronger laws to regulate charter schools: “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better: Advocates say we need a ‘stronger’ charter law, noting that Maryland ranks near the bottom. Pennsylvania’s law is ranked much higher, yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.”  Hornbeck points out that, “Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance.”  “Charter funding is also negatively affecting regular public schools.” “Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges. Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students.  Some do.  However, the citywide charter lottery inherently skims.  Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for him/her to apply and succeed.”

Hornbeck concludes: “Charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms.  In fact, chartering is not an education reform.  It’s merely a change in governance.  A charter law doesn’t deal with the hard and often costly slog of real reform.” He then lists what makes the difference in education:  high standards, quality teachers, prekindergarten for 3 year olds, lower class size, and “attacking concentrated poverty through community schools; after school programs; more instruction time… and high quality child care.”

In his recent op-ed, Hornbeck also wades into one of the hottest issues in the debate about education reform: teachers unions:

“We need the best and brightest teachers: The proposed ‘stronger’ law undermines collective bargaining that protects teachers from politics and favoritism and has been crucial to improvement in compensation and benefits… Unionization is not the problem.  There are no unions in many of the nation’s worst educational performing states.  All schools, charter or traditional, must pay competitive salaries and benefits to attract experienced, skilled teachers who can succeed with children.”

Congratulations David Hornbeck for your courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom and your support for a just system of public schools as the best way to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.

Does America Care Enough about Newark’s Students to Hold Chris Christie Accountable?

When states take over struggling urban school districts, it never works.  The purpose is always said to be saving the education of poor children whose scores are low.  The real purpose is never announced: to save money in places where states ought to be allocating far more to help schools serve children whose lives are dominated by poverty.

State departments of education are bureaucratic agencies that are not equipped to run large urban school districts. The so-called “recovery districts” in places like New Orleans and Detroit tend to contract out the schools to private charter management agencies.  Proponents of such school takeovers try to make it look as though the test scores are rising, but overall scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress never turn around.  As school finance experts tell us again and again, more money is needed to support children at school when they live in concentrated poverty, more money than is needed in wealthy suburbs where family income makes up for anything that may be missing at school.  But in state capitols dominated by rural legislators and representatives from outer suburbs, we haven’t seen any state come up with a Marshall Plan to support the schools serving children in big city school districts where virtually every child is poor.  And so politicians in the legislatures—in Harrisburg and Trenton and Lansing—blame the big city school districts and pretend state takeover of one sort or another will fix it all up.  It never works.

Governor Chris Christie has been more transparent than most state overseers in expressing his attitude toward the families of Newark, where the state has been running the public schools for twenty years now.  Last year he was filmed for TV when he claimed: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”  Lyndsey Layton, who profiled the long-running tragedy of Christie’s management of Newark’s schools in Tuesday’s Washington Post, reminds us what Christie told the new mayor, Ras Baraka, who was elected in Newark last spring on a platform that emphasized the need for more local control of the public schools: “I’m the decider. You have nothing to do with it.”

Layton describes a delegation preparing to travel to Washington, D.C. yesterday to seek some kind of federal support: “a band of city, county and state elected officials, along with leaders from the NAACP and others,” who planned  “a meeting with Obama administration officials.  Newark parents have filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the plan called ‘One Newark,’ disproportionately affects African Americans.”

Implemented by Christie’s appointed school superintendent, Cami Anderson, the “One Newark” plan became operational at the beginning of the 2014-2015  school year.  Layton explains: “The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system.  It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices.  It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.  Many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, where four in 10 residents don’t own cars.  In addition, state test scores have stayed the same or even declined.”

In mid-February eight Newark high school students, leaders of the Newark Students Union, occupied Cami Anderson’s office for four days.  Their demand?  A meeting with the superintendent, who has been notoriously unwilling to speak with members of the public she purports to serve.  As the fourth day of the protest arrived, Anderson met with the students, but only days later, State Education Commissioner David Hespe renewed Anderson’s  contract, an extension that had been in question. He even provided a performance bonus.

Just as Cami Anderson balked at meeting with the students who were occupying her office, she has also refused to attend all meetings of Newark’s locally elected and largely powerless school board since January of 2014.  She refused to comply with a formal summons from the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, chaired by State Senator Ronald Rice until the committee repeated its demand that she present herself. This is the legislative committee whose responsibility it is to oversee school districts being operated by the state. Bob Braun, former reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and currently a Newark blogger, writes: “State Education Commissioner David Hespe last week awarded Anderson another year’s contract plus a small raise despite her failure to attend public meetings and the decline in test scores in the city.  Anderson has generally refused to conduct public meetings of any sort, and stood up Rice’s Joint Committee on Public Schools three times before finally agreeing to appear in January.”  Braun quotes State Senator Rice: “This is probably the first time in the history of New Jersey that a superintendent of a school district has simply disrespected and been insubordinate to the state Legislature by refusing to meet her contractual and statutory responsibility to appear and answer questions when requested.”

Braun lists the members of the delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C. yesterday looking for help for the people of Newark as they try to find a way to block the destruction of their public schools.  Besides Senator Rice, the delegation included several other members of both houses of the state’s legislature, representatives of Newark’s clergy, directors of several local education advocacy and day care organizations, the executive director of the Newark Teachers Union, two representatives of the Newark Students Union, Hillary Shelton, senior vice president of the national NAACP, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

The Washington Post‘s Layton surmises that Christie’s arrogance may affect his prospects as a presidential hopeful.  She reminds readers that Christie promised something very different as he launched Newark’s school reform: “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went on a publicity blitz when he vowed to fix this city’s struggling schools with the most expansive re-engineering of urban education anywhere in the country.  He told Oprah Winfrey in 2010 that Newark would become a ‘national model.’ He said on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ that the plan would be ‘paradigm shifting.’ And he took ownership when community leaders began to complain about some of the plan’s controversial elements… But five years after Christie launched what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt.”

To read in depth about the role of Christie, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former New Jersey schools commissioner Christopher Cerf, and Cami Anderson, read Dale Russakoff’s profile of Newark school reform, Schooled, in the May 19, 2014 New Yorker, or this blog’s post about Russakoff’s piece.

Cuomo Set to Punish Schools in Poor Communities; Experts Blame Cuomo and Underfunding

Today in New York, the lavish sponsors of the year-long, “Don’t Steal Possible” ad campaign, Families for Excellent Schools—the people who support Eva Moskowitz’s New York City Success Academy Charter Schools—are holding a rally in Albany, the state capital.  Success Academy charter schools in New York City are closing and busing families to Albany for the event, which is scheduled to compete with a teachers’ union lobby day on the topic of the state budget. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a stalwart supporter of Success Academy Schools, and long the beneficiary of campaign cash from the hedge fund managers who dominate Eva Moskowitz’s board, has again and again promoted such events that publicize the public-charter controversy.  He orchestrated a similar rally last spring at Moskowitz’s request.

While NYC mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor Carmen Farina have launched a comprehensive three year improvement plan for the city’s lowest scoring schools, Cuomo has countered with a plan by which, according to Geoff Decker for ChalkBeat New York, “the state should be allowed to seize control of the schools and hand them over to outside organizations.  Cuomo’s takeover plan would allow ‘receivers’ to restructure the low-ranked schools, overhaul their curriculums, and override labor agreements in order to fire ‘underperforming’ teachers and administrators.”

While Cuomo doggedly blames school teachers and claims that punishing and firing teachers will address low achievement at school, the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide advocacy group, recently released a report that blames Cuomo for Record Setting Inequality. The AQE report notes that as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.  There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”  AQE instead charges that during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office, the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history.”

Governor Cuomo recently released a report identifying 178 “failing” schools across New York in which he believes the state should intervene.  As he announced the release of his new report, Eliza Shapiro for Capital NY  quotes Cuomo’s declaration: “This is the real scandal in Albany, the alarming fact that state government has stood by and done nothing as generation after generation of students have passed through failing schools.”  Shapiro notes the political theater that currently dominates the debate in Albany over the education budget.  She points out that Cuomo’s report listing failing schools “was sometimes indistinguishable from the eight reports on struggling schools FES (Families for Excellent Schools) has sent reporters since the summer.”

How to sort it all out?

First, Horace Meister, a pseudonym for a former policy analyst for the New York City Department of Education, contributed an analysis earlier this week to Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Meister examines data for 31 of the schools identified as “failing” in Cuomo’s report and located in areas of New York City that overlap geographically with the Success Academy charter schools Cuomo continues to brag about.  “The data are incontrovertible. Success Academy serves a much more privileged student body. The 31 ‘failing’ schools serve an average of 22.9% English Language Learners, 25.6% special education students, 7.9% high need special education students, 22.8% students living in temporary housing, 70.7% students receiving public assistance, 83.4% students receiving free lunch, and 5.4% students entering middle school overage.  On the other hand, Success Academy schools in the same geographic region serve on average 4.9% English Language Learners, 13.9% special education students, 0.7% high need special education students, 7.9% students living in temporary housing, 55.7% students receiving public assistance, 72.3% students receiving free lunch, and 0% students entering middle school overage.  It is obvious, as has been shown again and again in every data set ever studied, that the measures currently used to identify failing schools fail to accurately measure true school performance. Instead they largely penalize schools that serve the neediest students.”

Finally there is the recent analysis of Governor Cuomo’s report on “failing” schools in New York from Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance professor: Angry Andy’s Failing Schools & the Finger of Blame.  It seems appropriate, as numbers are being freely thrown around from all sides in New York, to go to an expert, and one from New Jersey—outside the New York political bubble—to try to help sort it all out.  Professor Baker sides with the Alliance for Quality Education and Horace Meister against Cuomo.  The problem is lack of funding that is exacerbating already wide inequality.  Baker writes that Cuomo’s  “report identifies 17 districts in particular that are home to failing schools. The point of the report is to assert that the incompetent bureaucrats, high paid administrators and lazy teachers in these schools simply aren’t getting the job done and must be punished/relieved of their duties.  Angry Andy has repeatedly vociferously asserted that he and his less rabid predecessors have poured obscene sums of funding into these districts for decades.  Thus—it’s their fault—certainly not his, for why they stink!”

Baker then lists conclusions he has demonstrated over the years with research: “I have addressed over and over again on this blog the plight of high need, specifically small city school districts under Governor Cuomo:

  1. On how New York State crafted a low-ball estimate of what districts needed to achieve adequate outcomes and then still completely failed to fund it.
  2. On how New York State maintains one of the least equitable state school finance systems in the nation.
  3. On how New York State’s systemic, persistent underfunding of high need districts has led to significant increases of numbers of children attending school with excessively large class sizes.
  4. On how New York State officials crafted a completely bogus, racially and economically disparate school classification scheme in order to justify intervening in the very schools they have most deprived over time.

Baker concludes: “Districts across NY state have funding gaps for a variety of reasons, but I have shown in the past that it is generally districts with greater needs—high poverty concentrations & more children with limited English language proficiency, as well as more minority children—which tend to have larger funding gaps.”

Charter Schools: Deregulation and Lack of Oversight

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado publishes reviews of studies and reports by education think tanks.  Recently NEPC published a review by Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, and Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder of a policy document from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) called, “Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need to Know about Charter Schools.”  NEPC’s authors believe that “Separating Fact & Fiction” is largely a glowing fictional account of what NAPCS would like the story of charter schools to be.

For instance,  NEPC’s authors quote the claim of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: “Charter schools introduce an unprecedented level of accountability into public education.  If a public charter school is not improving student achievement as laid out in its foundational charter agreement, it can be closed down.”  

Here is Miron, Mathis and Welner’s response to that claim: “This assertion, which is frequently repeated by charter advocacy groups, is based on how charter schools are supposed to work rather than actual practice.  The core bargain underlying charter school policies is that these schools would be freed from various governmental regulations and collective bargaining agreements, and in turn the schools would have to demonstrate strong performance, set forth in each specific charter…  But saying they can be closed is not the same as saying they are closed.”

Marian Wang for ProPublica reports that most states have neither regulated charter schools well enough to protect the needs of children nor to prevent fraud and widespread waste of public dollars that were historically spent for better regulated traditional public schools.  Most states leave oversight up to an array of authorizers: “Known as ‘authorizers,’ charter regulators have the power to decide which charter schools should be allowed to open and which are performing so badly they ought to close.  They’re supposed to vet charter schools, making sure the schools are giving kids a good education and spending public money responsibly.  But many of these gatekeepers are woefully inexperienced, under-resourced, confused about their mission or even compromised by conflicts of interest. And while some charter schools are overseen by state education agencies or school districts, others are regulated by entities for which overseeing charters is a side job, such as private colleges and nonprofits….”

Wang describes the “sponsor hopping” that Indiana law fails to prohibit.  Imagine Schools, which Wang describes as “a national charter school operator trailed by a track record of questionable financial dealings at schools in multiple states,” looked for a charter authorizer to oversee its opening of schools in Indianapolis.  After rejection from the office of Indianapolis’ mayor, who could have authorized opening a school, Imagine Schools went to Ball State University, got approval, and opened a number of schools.  Later, Ball State did shut down three of Imagine’s schools due to poor academic records, but Trine University, whose “charter school office is headed by Lindsay Omlor, who prior to this job had spent six years working for Imagine,” stepped in to become the authorizer.

Then there is the situation in Ohio where nonprofit organizations can authorize charter schools.  Ohio law provides that authorizers get to keep 3 percent of the dollars the state provides for each of the charter schools they authorize.  These funds are supposed to cover administrative costs, but there is evidence that some nonprofit organizations use these funds as “walking around money” rather than to support or oversee the school.  One Ohio authorizer, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, formerly an orphanage but according to Wang, now a mental health agency, sponsors 43 schools across the state of Ohio.  Wang reports that St. Aloysius Orphanage contracts out regulation and management of its schools to a for-profit vendor, Charter School Specialists. “Charter School Specialists reviews the schools’ finances and conducts school site visits on behalf of St. Aloysius.  It writes the required annual report on behalf of St. Aloysius, running through how the charter schools are doing.  But Charter School Specialists also sells services to charter schools, such as handling accounting, payroll or even providing schools with treasurers.  In other words, it’s a for-profit middleman paid by both the regulator and the regulated.  For the former orphanage, authorizing brought in $2.6 million in fees paid by charter schools, the group’s 2013 tax filing shows.  In the same year, St. Aloysius paid Charter School Specialists $1.5 million, leaving the nonprofit an extra $1.1 million. It’s not clear exactly, what St. Aloysius has done to earn the difference….”

Wang also examines Michigan, where Grand Valley State University sponsors charter schools, as one of the state’s largest authorizers.  For-profit National Heritage Academies (NHA), with 80 schools across several states, operates a third of Grand Valley State’s charter schools in Michigan.  According to Wang, however, “that’s not the extent of the relationship between the university and the company.  NHA’s founder and chairman, J.S. Huizenga, serves as a director at the Grand Valley State University Foundation.  And though he’s not an alumnus, he’s in a special class of donors that have given $1 million or more to the university, which also oversees more of his schools than any other regulator in the state.”

Miron, Mathis and Welner explore the contention of many charter school supporters that charter schools are in fact public schools: “It is true that federal and many state laws define charter schools as public schools.  Further, charter schools are funded primarily with public funds.  But the actual legal status, in any meaningful policy discussion, is much less clear… Most charter schools are governed by nonprofit boards.”  “It is increasingly the case that charter school buildings are privately owned by the charter’s founders, by an affiliated private company, or by a private trust.  In schools operated by private education management organizations (EMOs), the materials, furniture and equipment in the schools are usually privately owned by the EMO and leased to the school. Except for a small number of states that require teachers to be employees of the charter school, it is common for teachers to be ‘private employees’ of the EMO.  Although most charter schools have appointed nonprofit boards intended to represent the public.., a growing portion of charter schools are operated by private EMOs, and key decisions are made at corporate headquarters, which are often out-of-state. Public schools, like other public entities, are subject to transparency laws.  Charter schools and their private operators increasingly refuse to share information and data in response to public requests… Thus, while claiming to be ‘public,’ and while having some elements that are public (most importantly, public funding for a no-tuition education), their operations are basically private.”

Those who prevail in such a system are charter operators who can hire the lawyers to help them comply with the letter of regulatory law, if not its intention, and those who can contribute campaign cash to the legislators who refuse to oversee what has become a privatized education marketplace.  Once again, we benefit from reading a warning from Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.” (Consumed, p. 145)

Debate on NCLB Reauthorization Dies on House Floor Late Friday; No Vote Taken

The bill—passed out of committee in mid-February and considered on the floor of  the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday—to launch a long-overdue reauthorization of the federal education law was not a good bill.  I certainly did not support it.  But there was widespread belief that the bill, ushered through the committee process by John Kline (R-MN) would be affirmed by a House of Representatives dominated by Kline’s own Republican Party.  However, late on Friday afternoon after two days of debate, House leaders indefinitely postponed a vote, admitting they did not have the support needed to pass the version Kline and his committee had brought forward.

The bill’s purpose is to reauthorize the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  While ESEA is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, the current version, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2002.

“In a political embarrassment for Republicans,” writes Kimberly Hefling for the Associated Press, “House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote on a bill to update the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law after struggling to find support from conservatives.”

It would be reassuring if what people expected to be consensus had fallen apart over the parts of the bill that would undermine the original purpose of ESEA—the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, but strong support remained among House conservatives for several provisions that would undermine the federal role in education of promoting equity.  Consensus remained about several parts of the House version, for example, that would further undermine opportunity for poor children, especially those in urban school districts. No one questioned a provision in the proposed bill called “Title I Portability,” which would threaten the purpose of the Title I formula, which targets federal funding to school districts where family poverty is concentrated—the school districts that must meet the extraordinary needs of masses of children whose economic needs dominate their lives.  Strong support also remained for freezing  federal funding for education. The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding, warns that the House version, “would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years (that would be covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization of NCLB) at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

Nobody expected to see civil rights protections or generous school funding in a bill coming from today’s extremely conservative House of Representatives, however.  A similar bill sponsored by John Kline when Congress tried in 2013 to reauthorize ESEA/NCLB passed the House but with not one vote in favor from a Democrat. And when this year’s bill was passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee, it had no Democratic votes in favor

So what divided House Republicans and prevented Kline’s bill from moving forward for a vote?  Hefling describes, “opposition to the Obama administration’s encouragement of the Common Core state standards.”  She explains that the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth strongly urged members to oppose the bill.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post quotes Lindsey Burke, a lobbyist from the Heritage Foundation, promoting states’ rights and an erasure of the federal role in education: “This proposal spends nearly as much as No Child Left Behind, is nearly as long in page length and fails to give states an option to opt out of the law.  As it stands, it’s a huge missed opportunity to restore state and local control of education.” Maggie Severns of Politico Pro also notes the role of far-right lobbying: “An amendment pushed by Heritage Action that would allow states to opt out of the law’s requirements altogether but still receive federal funds was left on the cutting room floor when the bill went through the House Rules Committee.  Heritage and The Club for Growth both strongly opposed the bill.”  Many conservative House members were also apparently upset that private school Title I vouchers were not added to the bill.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal policy reporter, speculates that the disintegration of support for the House Republican bill portends that Congress will not be able to reauthorize ESEA until after the 2016 election: “It’s possible that Kline and other leaders will find the votes to pass the bill next week—but if they don’t, the bid to update the NCLB law this year could be in serious trouble… If efforts to rewrite the law falter, it would mean that states would have to continue to live under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s stop-gap solution: A series of (increasingly unpopular) waivers from parts of NCLB law, which call for states to adopt certain education reform priorities (like high standards) in order to get flexibility from some of the law’s mandates…”

Passage of an ESEA reauthorization remained problematic even prior to the collapse of support from House conservatives on Friday.  Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of that chamber’s Health,Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is working with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to craft a bipartisan bill in the Senate. One wonders how House and Senate versions could have been reconciled. And prior to Friday, President Barack Obama had threatened to veto any bill that contains the provisions that were the centerpiece of the House version: Title I portability that undermines the targeting of federal funds for school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and the limitations that would freeze federal education funding for at least five years (until another reauthorization) at a level below what President Obama has asked for in a Fiscal Year 2016 federal budget proposal.

Ohio’s Term-Limited House Speaker Becomes Lobbyist for Notorious Charter Operator

Ohio’s top education reporter, Doug Livingston at the Akron Beacon Journal, recently reported that Bill Batchelder—longtime legislator and recent Ohio House Speaker who just left the House due to term limits—has revolved directly into lobbying.  Batchelder has already taken on a prominent client, William Lager—one of Ohio’s most notorious contributors of campaign cash, founder of Ohio’s long-failing Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), and owner of the two privately held, for-profit companies that provide all services for ECOT.

Livingston explains: “Recently retired Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, long an advocate for school choice, has gone into business with former House staffers who are lobbying for the state’s largest charter school organization. The online school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and known as ECOT, is among the state’s lowest performing charter schools.  The for-profit companies related to ECOT are Altair Learning Management and IQ Innovations, an online education software firm.  The founder, William Lager, has donated more than $1 million to prominent Ohio Republicans since 2010, among them Batchelder. Less than a month after he speaker was term-limited in December, Batchelder’s former chief of staff, Troy Judy, and policy director, Chad Hawley, changed the name of a consulting firm created by Judy months earlier to The Batchelder Company, a lobbying firm.”

Even the Plain Dealer, which has in the past been relatively neutral about the growing charter school sector in Ohio, has begun to express concern.  On the same day as Livingston described Batchelder’s new lobbying venture in the Beacon Journal, the Plain Dealer published a full page editorial (with a picture in the print edition of a huge wave of hundred dollar bills) about Governor John Kasich’s biennial budget proposal for education, a proposal that favors charters and cuts traditional public schools.  The headline screams: “Charter Schools Can Expect a Tsunami of Cash Under Kasich’s Budget Plan, While Traditional Public Schools’ Resources Ebb.”

The editorial begins: “There has to be a better way to fund kindergarten-through-12th-grade charter schools than Gov. John Kasich’s latest budget proposal, which would further rob traditional public schools of millions of dollars in order to subsidize poorly regulated charter schools.  The governor’s plan would continue the cannibalization of Ohio’s public schools.  That’s especially so since the General Assembly itself has been all too willing over the years to pick the pockets of traditional public schools to pad the pockets of the private interests behind for-profit charters and the lobbyists who represent them—and far too unwilling to tighten Ohio’s shamefully lax regulatory framework for charters.”

The editors remind us of the recent Stanford CREDO (Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes) report that concludes, “Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state.  If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time.”  “Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school, the analysis shows on average that the students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”

In December, Margaret Raymond, part of the Hoover Institution and director of Stanford’s CREDO, came to the Cleveland City Club, where she declared that in Ohio the school-choice marketplace is not working: “I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.  There are other supports that are needed… I think we need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools, but I also think we need to have more oversight of the overseers… the authorizers.”

Governor Kasich has recently said he is making it a new priority to regulate the bad actors in Ohio’s charter sector.  The Plain Dealer‘s editors credit him with good intentions, but they wonder why the proposed budget, which speaks with dollars proposed rather than mere political rhetoric, is supporting the notorious profiteers the Governor claims he intends to sanction: “This year, it appears charter reforms supported by Kasich finally will emerge in the General Assembly.  Increasing charters’ taxpayer subsidy should await the results of that reform effort; pumping nearly $1 billion into their coffers, as the governor’s plan envisions, is not the answer.”  The editorial continues: “The Ohio General Assembly should also change a state law that puts traditional public school systems, such as Akron’s, on the hook for millions of dollars to provide bus transportation to private and charter school students even beyond what they can afford to offer regular public students.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors conclude: “The state must stop a school-funding approach that, to benefit deficient charter schools, is hollowing out the ability of public schools to function.”  Unfortunately, the fact that the just-retired House Speaker, Bill Batchelder, is becoming the lobbyist for William Lager and ECOT instead portends more state support for political players like William Lager and continued lax oversight—thereby protecting their huge profits.

A Musical Performance: Collaborative Learning, Authentic Assessment, Opportunity to Learn

Earlier this week my husband and I attended a concert that happens in our school district every four years.  It is sponsored by a small nonprofit organization that promotes equity and opportunity to learn across our school district’s elementary and middle schools and that rents Severance Hall, the gorgeous, art deco home of the Cleveland Orchestra, for these quadrennial concerts to showcase our district’s school music program.  This year the concert happened, ironically, during the first-ever week of Ohio’s PARCC (Common Core) standardized test. But the test our students took on Tuesday night at Severance Hall was different.

Musical performance is the definition of authentic learning and assessment, and the recent concert was a test that our students definitely passed (despite that their performance will not affect our schools’ ratings based on state assessments and the PARCC). To use the lingo of the day, musical performance also perfectly exemplifies collaborative learning.  Elementary singers stayed on pitch and instrumentalists and singers came together from both of our middle schools in an honors chorus and an honors orchestra to perform together as they will in a year or two when they get to high school. The high school concert band sounded great playing a tricky piece with complicated percussion and lots of brass. A high school a capella choir sang a moving  “Shenandoah” with such intricate harmony and sensitive dynamics it made us cry, and then different student conductors led the next two selections.  When the high school symphony played a movement from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a girl with blue hair played perfect bassoon solos. A recent graduate returned from Morehouse College to accompany a gospel ensemble on the piano and to sing a solo. I attended the dress rehearsal for part of the afternoon, and watched while the high school symphony and a huge choir prepared selections by John Rutter and Beethoven—adjusting the dynamics again and again in the huge and unfamiliar concert hall to ensure that the oboe was audible in one section and the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the choir in another. A jazz combo played for a pre-concert reception, men’s barbershoppers sang on stage, a harpist played a Beatles tune in the ticket lobby, and a mass choir with pit orchestra opened with a show tune by Frank Loesser.

Contrast all this with today’s dominant myth about education, described by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a column in last Monday’s paper.  Krugman describes what can be called “the world is flat” myth, which casts our nation’s economic future amidst a vast competition in a connected techie world.  This story alleges that the nation’s economic growth—and hence our future—is being imperiled by our public education system, which is mediocre at best.   Krugman explains: “The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change.  This ‘skills gap’ is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated.  So what we need is more and better education.”  Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist as well as a NY Times columnist, rejects this myth: “There’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers…  Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.”

Krugman tells us that corporate profits continue to soar, but something besides education is preventing widespread well being and feeding the rapid growth of inequality:  “As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees—all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance.  Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.”  Krugman suggests some solutions for improving the economy: “Levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families.  We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Interestingly, last Monday the NT Times printed a sort of double whammy with an op ed piece on the same theme as Krugman’s column, an op ed from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.  Mishel rejects tax cuts as any kind of solution to the problem of inequality: “What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in—a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate… Taxation does not explain why middle-income families are having a harder time making ends meet, even as they increase their education and become ever more productive.”  In fact tax cuts are counter-productive because they collapse society’s capacity to respond to rising inequality.  Mishel’s prescription is similar to Krugman’s: raise the minimum wage; protect workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, and keep people on salary instead of turning work over to so-called independent contractors. “Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.”

Narrowing inequality, as Krugman and Mishel tell us, cannot be accomplished merely by improving education,  It will instead require policies that support the people who do the work, not merely the titans who manipulate high finance. But educating our children remains absolutely central to who we are as a people.  Think about that concert earlier this week. What made the evening of music especially important is that the concert presented a public school music program in a school district where the children are not affluent. Sixty percent of the students in our school district qualify for free lunch; they are not the children of the powerful financiers Paul Krugman describes. Enriching their skills to make and enjoy music and their opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something beautiful is our gift to them from the public. Public schools can’t get rid of inequality, but they are one way that our society can expand opportunity for our children.