What David Leonhardt Ignores, Denies and Gets Wrong about the 2005 Seizure of New Orleans Schools

The NY Times columnist David Leonhardt reflects anew on the school transformation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After a recent visit to New Orleans, Leonhardt extols a New Orleans miracle. Many knowledgeable people have disagreed.  Perhaps Leonhardt’s new column is a case of confirmation bias or maybe just rose colored glasses.

Leonhardt concludes: “(T)he academic progress has been remarkable. Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged… People here point to two main forces driving the progress: Autonomy and accountability. In other school districts, teachers and principals are subject to a thicket of rules, imposed by a central bureaucracy.  In New Orleans, schools have far more control. They decide which extracurriculars to offer and what food to serve. Principals choose their teachers—and can let go of weak ones.  Teachers, working together, often choose their curriculum.” “The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick.”

Leonhardt is flat-out wrong on that last point. What is different about New Orleans’ charter schools is the Louisiana law passed right after Hurricane Katrina, a law allowing charter schools explicitly to select their students. Charter schools in New Orleans can use admission tests and other admissions screens that cannot be used by the charter schools in any other state. I remember being shocked by the formation of selective charter schools when I visited New Orleans myself in the summer of 2006. The Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, told me: “Pre-Katrina, New Orleans already had a dual system for privileged and poor children. We used to call the selective schools our magnet program.  Then we used the term ‘city-wide access.’ These schools were created for children of promise. After the hurricane, legislators said Act 35 created the charters to demonstrate innovative ideas for at-risk students, but the highest performing schools… went charter first. The law was used to make these privileged schools unencumbered and autonomous.”

For example, after the hurricane, New Orleans added a selective charter high school by seizing the storied Uptown Neighborhood’s comprehensive, public Alcee Fortier High School and turning it into a charter high school with priority admission for the children of faculty at Tulane and other local universities.  Tulane granted $1.5 million to clean and transform the old neighborhood high school into its model charter.  Although Fortier’s former neighborhood students were allowed to apply to the new charter Lusher High School through an admissions test, the test was waived for children of professional staff at Tulane, Loyola, Xavier and Dillard Universities.

A decade after the New Orleans’ schools takeover, Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education explored the implications of the Louisiana law that permits selective charter schools in New Orleans: “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores, as well as other criteria, for admission.”

The Stanford report continues: “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom.  Only the top two sub-tiers of schools within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor… Because schools at the top of the hierarchy largely choose their student body, few students actually have the option to attend these schools, while those schools at the bottom are assigned students who are not chosen elsewhere or who are pushed out of schools further up the hierarchy… This stratification occurs as a function of both admissions patterns and transfer/exclusion patterns. The top schools not only have selective enrollment criteria, they are also permitted to ask students who do not maintain a certain grade point average to leave. Similarly, they are allowed to determine which and how many special needs students they admit, often turning parents away because they do not, for example, serve students with cognitive or physical disabilities that require significant accommodations. The students identified as ‘special education’ in the highest performing schools are generally designated as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented,’ and rarely include the kinds of disabilities found in lower tier schools.  When schools at the top of the hierarchy, disenroll students whose GPAs have slipped, or turn away children with special needs, these children end up attending schools further down on the hierarchy.”

Not only is Leonhardt’s column based on a factual error when he highlights what he imagines to be “open admissions” in New Orleans’ charter schools, but there is also so much that he chooses to ignore.  In a column last year for the Brookings Institution, Andre Perry describes the ideologically driven seizure of the city’s schools and details some of the collateral damage: “Sure, rebuilding school buildings and improving systems are worthy goals after any disaster. But Hurricane Katrina blew a window of opportunity wide open for New Orleans reformers to ram through a mostly predetermined agenda of disempowering the New Orleans Public School Board.  In the weeks after the storm, the Louisiana legislature changed its previous definition of an academically failing school to be able to take control of the vast majority of schools in the city.”

Then the Recovery School District fired the entire staff of the public school district, ignoring tenure laws and eliminating the teachers union.  Perry continues:  “Of the more than 7,000 employees who were terminated from New Orleans schools in the months after Katrina… approximately 4,300 were teachers, 71 percent of whom were black, and 78 percent of whom were women. Not only did this negatively impact the black middle class of the entire city, it emasculated the black community as a whole, which still feels the sting of that decision today.”  In 2015, Teach for America bragged about its “growing footprint” in New Orleans: “Today, TFA corps members and alumni comprise a full 20 percent of the New Orleans teaching force, and over 50 alumni serve as leaders at the school or school systems level.”

Andre Perry’s hindsight demonstrates his own personal learning from the charter experiment: Perry served for several years as the CEO of the New Beginnings charter schools in New Orleans. Writing for the Hechinger Report, Katy Reckdahl quotes Perry describing the way he had to exaggerate expectations as he proposed the formation of a new charter school: “Perry, then CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation submitted an application for Gentilly Terrace Elementary predicting that 100 percent of the school’s fourth and eighth graders would reach proficiency or close to it…  ‘If I had submitted more realistic numbers, the state would have never accepted it… There is a general belief that you have to shoot for the stars or you’ll be shortchanging a possibility of miraculous growth.'”

In this week’s NY Times piece, David Leonhardt alleges that, “(A)cademic progress has been remarkable. Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged.”

That conclusion certainly contradicts reports last November about a collapse of state standardized test scores. For The Lens, Marta Jewson reported: “State rankings for most New Orleans schools are on a three-year slide, with 65 percent of the schools dropping from 2014 to 2017. The drop in school performance scores from 2016 to 2017 caused hand-wringing among the city’s education leaders, but The Lens’ analysis of state data shows it’s just part of a worrisome trend… Charter networks Kipp New Orleans Schools, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, ReNEW Schools and Algiers Charters operate a combined 23 schools. Only one of them improved its school performance score from 2016 to 2017… The three-year drop appears to confirm education leaders’ fears about what would happen when tests aligned with tougher standards were introduced in 2015… Some school leaders say those tougher standards have caught up with the city’s schools….”

Yes, scores tend to drop when new tests and new standards are introduced. But the fact remains that Leonhardt’s boast about remarkable progress seems to contradict a three year slide in scores.

In the fall of 2006, writing for the Center for Community Change, Leigh Dingerson described the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “Over the past twelve months, buoyed by the support of the federal government, a network of conservative anti-government activists have moved with singular intensity to patch together a new vision for K-12 education that they hope will become a national model.  It is a vision that disdains the public sector and those who work within it.  It is a vision based on competition and economic markets.  It is a vision of private hands spending public funds.  Most disturbing, it is a vision that casts families and students as ‘customers,’ who shop for schools in isolation from—and even in competition with—their neighbors.  It is a vision that, like the game of musical chairs, requires someone to be left without a seat.”

Several years after the hurricane and the New Orleans school takeover, in perhaps the most stunning moment I have ever experienced at a public meeting, a well-known keynoter echoed then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—calling Hurricane Katrina a remarkable opportunity for New Orleans to redesign its schools. A woman in the audience leapt to her feet and loudly contradicted his conclusion by telling the truth of her own experience as a parent: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”


Ohio’s ECOT Mess—Like a Sink Full of Dirty Dishes

Exactly five months ago today, on February 13, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court heard the final legal appeal by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) trying to keep itself in business.

  • You may remember that ECOT, perhaps the nation’s largest online charter school—at least according to what we now know were its inflated attendance numbers—had already been shut down (on January 18, 2018) by its sponsor, the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West, and the Ohio Department of Education because it hadn’t enough money to pay its teachers in upcoming months along with what it owed the state.
  • And you may remember that the state has been trying to recapture money ECOT had collected in public tax dollars—$80 million overpaid to ECOT for only the two most recent school years after the state strengthened its oversight procedures in 2015— despite that everyone knows ECOT has been cheating the state since its founding in 2001.
  • And you may remember that William Lager, ECOT’s founder, has been milking profits out of the nonprofit school via his own two for-profit companies—IQ Innovations that provided the curriculum—and Altair Management that ran the operations.

Here is how the Ohio Supreme Court hearing—five months ago today—concluded, according to the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel:  “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only log in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’”

Now, you would think that by now the Ohio Supreme Court could have arrived at a decision on ECOT’s final appeal to stay in business—a case in which lower courts had found against ECOT at every level.  But as citizens of Ohio, we await ECOT’s death without any kind of closure even though we all know that the school has already been shut down—totally. The school’s assets have been sold off in a widely publicized auction and it no longer provides services for students.  The Supreme Court decision matters, because ECOT’s officials hope—if the Supreme Court finds for ECOT—the school wouldn’t be required to repay as many tax dollars and because the same officials say they hope to resurrect the school.

In just the past month, as we await the high court’s decision, and the state remains mired in the ECOT scandal: here are some things we’ve been learning.

For the Associated Press, Kantele Franko reports that 2,300 of ECOT’s supposed students are apparently unaccounted for.  Nobody knows whether they have dropped out or left the state or perhaps re-enrolled someplace else.  Franko explains that a thousand of the students were likely 18 years of age or older, but that 1,300 were school-age youngsters who ought to be considered truant if they are not re-enrolled.  Franko quotes Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee: “I think this just illustrates the whole problem that we’ve had with ECOT… You not only can’t tell how long the students signed on, you can’t even tell for sure if they even exist, so I am not surprised that there are students that they can’t track.”  So far, however, the Ohio Legislature hasn’t passed any new laws to better regulate attendance at Ohio’s e-schools.


The Ohio Legislature has taken steps, however, to protect schools where ECOT’s former students are known to have enrolled—giving them safe harbor from stringent oversight because ECOT’s former students were known to be so far behind. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “Leaders of both houses said it wouldn’t be fair to punish schools that absorbed the 12,000 students left without a school after budget problems forced ECOT, once Ohio’s largest charter school, to close mid year. The primary beneficiary of ECOT’s closure and of this new law is Ohio Virtual Academy, a for-profit online school that took in 4,000 ECOT students mid-year. That boosted its enrollment more than 40 percent, along with its income and potential profit.  With 12,000 students, the school is now Ohio’s online giant, replacing the mammoth ECOT.”  Ohio Virtual Academy is the state’s affiliate of the notorious K12, Inc., a national, for-profit, online-charter empire.  The legislation to protect schools serving students abandoned when ECOT closed was added quietly as an amendment to another bill just before the Legislature adjourned for summer break, and was opposed by several prominent Democrats. O’Donnell quotes Toledo Representative Teresa Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee: “Children move in and out of schools because of choice every day.  It’s outrageous that Ohio taxpayers have to foot more profits for e-schools and then give them safe harbor.”


Now the ECOT scandal is creating political trouble for the Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has suddenly filed in court to recover money from ECOT’s founder, William Lager under Ohio’s Corrupt Practices Act.  The Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel explains: “ECOT founder Bill Lager could be forced to personally pay back millions of dollars to the state, which plans to go after him for some or all of the $200 million in taxpayer money paid to his for-profit companies. Lager, who went from broke businessman to multimillionaire after opening the state’s largest online charter school, could face claims of breach of fiduciary duty, conflicts of interest in public contracts, and civil claims under Ohio’s Corrupt Practices Act.”

In other words, suddenly the Attorney General has noticed that Lager, who founded and served as an agent for a publicly funded online charter school, had a conflict of interest as he steered contracts to his own for-profit businesses. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Lager, as a legal agent of ECOT, has a fiduciary duty to the school, DeWine and his staff say, which was violated by contracting with companies he owns for key services.”

What everybody wonders is why DeWine, who has been Ohio Attorney General since 2011, only decided to go after ECOT now in the summer of 2018—as he, Ohio’s 2018 Republican candidate for governor, actively campaigns. DeWine claims to have waited until another case set a precedent for cracking down on such conflicts of interest involving a charter school—this time a smaller charter school in Cincinnati. Now, says Mike DeWine, he can be assured that as the State Attorney General he has standing to crack down on charter school fraud.

Clearly, the ECOT scandal has become a hot potato for Republican candidates seeking state office in the November 2018 election.  Democrats across the state, reminding the public of William Lager’s huge political investments in Republican campaigns over the years, are also reminding voters that key Republicans including Mike DeWine—currently attorney general and Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial candidate in November, and Dave Yost—currently state auditor and Ohio’s Republican candidate for attorney general in November, have been ignoring for years Lager’s compromised position as the founder and agent of nonprofit ECOT who is also making huge profits by steering business to his own for-profit contractors.  And, as Patrick O’Donnell explains, Democrats are finding clever ways to use years of sordid Republican support for Lager to undermine DeWine’s bid for Governor.  When ECOT’s assets were auctioned online, the liquidator offered a costume worn by Eddy the Eagle, ECOT’s mascot—a giant Big Bird sort of character sporting an ECOT t-shirt. A still-mysterious purchaser acquired the costume for $153 plus taxes and fees.  Now Eddy the Eagle has been appearing at political rallies—still wearing his ECOT t-shirt, but now carrying a sign that reads, “Ask Me about Mike DeWine.”


The Akron Beacon-Journal, The Toledo Blade, and the Columbus Dispatch have editorialized against ECOT and Lager this week, noting that while Attorney General Mike DeWine’s court action may seem timed politically to distract voters from the years when Republicans did nothing to crack down on ECOT, it remains a good thing DeWine is taking action, however belatedly. The Dispatch is clearest in defining the importance of DeWine’s recent action. Ohio’s ECOT scandal symbolizes a much larger problem that remains unaddressed by the Ohio legislature:

“Lager might have been among the most brazen, but he’s not the only charter school founder to abuse the process to enrich his companies and himself.  While all Ohio charter schools are by law nonprofit, many, like ECOT, contract with for-profit companies to operate them, and in many cases the for-profit companies are controlled by the founders of the schools. Ohio lawmakers have failed to change charter school law to explicitly ban these clear conflicts of interest. Having a court rule on them would be a welcome push in the right direction.”

Trump Administration’s Rule Change on Affirmative Action Will Solidify Segregation in K-12 Public Schools

It seems unlikely that last week’s action by the Trump Justice Department—to rescind rules on affirmative action implemented by the Obama administration—will materially affect local school districts’ capacity to integrate K-12 schools by race. Although in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” a 2007 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts had already caused school districts to step significantly back from a commitment to racial integration in elementary and secondary schools.

Roberts’ decision in the 2007 case, Parents Involved, banned the use of race as a factor to be explicitly considered in school assignment plans unless, of course, the school district remained under court order to remedy government-imposed de jure segregation (purposely maintaining separate schools for black and white children). Now, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, fewer and fewer Southern school districts that explicitly maintained separate schools remain under court order.

Today, school districts attentive to school segregation have been more likely to try to create within-district, voluntary policies to mix children by race and income across the district’s schools. Like a number of school districts, Louisville (Jefferson County, Kentucky) and Seattle had been using racial balance as an explicit factor to balance school enrollment. In 2007, two lawsuits, one in Louisville and another in Seattle, were combined into the case we now know as Parents Involved.  Here is the essence of Chief Justice Roberts’s decision: “The Fourteenth Amendment prevents states from according differential treatment to American children on the basis of their color or race… The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination the basis of race.”

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: “These cases consider the longstanding efforts of two local school boards to integrate their public schools.  The school board plans before us resemble many others adopted in the last 50 years by primary and secondary schools throughout the Nation… We have approved ‘narrowly tailored’ plans that are no less race-conscious than the plans before us.  And we have understood that the Constitution permits local communities to adopt desegregation plans even when it does not require them to do so.” “Brown held out a promise. It was a promise embodied in three Amendments designed to make citizens of slaves.  It was the promise of true racial equality—not as a matter of fine words on paper, but as a matter of everyday life in the Nation’s cities and schools. It was about the nature of a democracy that must work for all Americans. It sought one law, one Nation, one people, not simply as a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.”

The 2007 Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved has already had a chilling effect on school districts’ voluntary efforts to integrate their schools.  Some school districts have continued to make the effort—using family income as a sort of proxy for race. Cambridge, Massachusetts is the example we read about most often.

The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson and Moriah Balingit describe the history of race-based affirmative efforts to integrate K-12 schools since the 2007 decision. They also describe how the recent Trump Justice Department’s action to revoke Obama-era guidance may affect public school districts across the country: “Revoking the Obama-era guidance on affirmative action could affect elementary and secondary schools that have grappled with racial imbalances. In 2007, the high court sharply limited how school districts could use race in enrollment. The ruling struck down race-based policies in Seattle and Louisville. It confused school officials, who worried that their policies for assigning students ran afoul of the law. The following year, the Bush administration advised schools to use ‘race-neutral methods’ to determine where children go to school, suggesting that officials use socioeconomic status instead of race. The Obama administration in 2011 issued its guidance, which spelled out how schools could use race in enrollment policy to promote diversity and avoid isolating students of one race in a single school. The 2011 guidance sought to help school districts thread the needle when using race or other factors in enrollment policies. That guidance also cautioned school officials that they should be careful when using race and that they could do so only in limited circumstances.”

Anderson and Balingit describe the reaction of Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to last week’s withdrawal by the Trump administration of the Obama era guidance and its return to Bush-era rules: “Rachel Kleinman… said withdrawing the guidance could deter districts from implementing policies to increase diversity. Those districts will no longer be able to rely on the Education Department, she said, to help them craft a policy that complies with the Supreme Court’s decision (in Parents Involved). Kleinman is quoted, saying the recent action of the Trump Justice Department “might chill school districts from doing anything at all.”  She further explains that the reversion to the older Bush guidance “will have no impact on laws that govern school integration and admissions, nor will it affect the hundreds of schools under desegregation orders.”

Considering the current and future makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely that Parents Involved will be overturned any time soon.  It is therefore unlikely that school districts will be launching innovative school integration programs. That is a sad reality.  Reflecting on last week’s Trump administration action to rescind Obama-era guidance on school integration and affirmative action, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quotes Richard Rothstein, whose recent book, The Color of Law, examines all sorts of government policies that have contributed over the decades to the racial segregation of our society.  Rothstein, who strongly supports racial integration, believes these actions—in the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, for example—have in reality segregated our society in ways that could, with another kind of Supreme Court, be remedied because they are examples of de jure segregation by government.

Strauss quotes a 2014 article by Rothstein in The American Prospect in which Rothstein explains why affirmative programs in public schools remain absolutely necessary to remedy the damage of slavery and Jim Crow: “Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages—though serious—are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural)… poor whites are less likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks.  Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults.  In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so…. Certainly, Hispanics suffer discrimination, some of it severe… but the undeniable hardship faced by recent, non-English speaking, unskilled, low-wage immigrants is not equivalent to blacks’ centuries of lower-caste status. The problems are different, and the remedies must also be different….”

Teachers Persist in Fight Against Anti-Tax Ideologues in All-Red States

Bryce Covert’s new piece in The Nation, Will Red-State Protests Spark Electoral Change?, is a must read.  The focus is Oklahoma, a state where, until this spring, taxes had not risen since 1990 and where the legislature cannot pass a tax increase of any kind without a three-fourths supermajority.

Covert introduces us to Scott Helton, a high school English teacher whose school opted to save money with online textbooks instead of buying the printed copies. But the school hasn’t enough computers and its Wi-Fi is inadequate. He has been forced to spend his own money to provide readings for his students. Ten years ago, his classes averaged 20 students; today they are packed with 35, and in once case 40 students, many of whom sit on the floor. We also learn about underpaid workers in other government agencies including Gail DeLashaw, a family-support worker in the Department of Human Services, whose salary is $30,000, 60 percent of the national average for someone like DeLashaw with an advanced degree.  Her case load—once 500 or 600—has risen to 1,200 families.

A high school Advanced-Placement government teacher in Moore, Oklahoma, Chuck Burks describes the plain truth: “I point out to my kids a whole lot of times that, as Americans, we are really, really on top of cutting taxes… But a lot of people are kind of ignorant as to what those tax cuts… take away from. The thing that frustrates me about (the funding fight) is that it’s so easy to fix… Restore the the things you cut.”

After depicting the deplorable impact of Oklahoma’s tax slashing, Covert summarizes the history: “Oklahoma’s statehouse wasn’t the only one that changed after the Democrats took a midterm ‘shellacking’ in 2010. In North Carolina, where Democrats had held the governorship and both houses of the Legislature since 1999, Republicans gained control of all three. Likewise, they took complete control in Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin, installing Tea Party darlings like Paul LePage, John Kasich, and Scott Walker in the governor’s mansion…  Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio all reduced individual and business taxes after 2011. Maine enacted a slew of personal tax cuts skewed to the wealthy.  North Carolina’s new Republican triumvirate began reducing taxes after state elections in 2012—including big reductions in corporate and personal rates, the elimination of the estate tax, and a gradual move to a regressive flat tax—and today the state is bringing in $2.6 billion less in revenue. Republicans gained control of Kentucky’s government in 2017, and this year made deep cuts to individual and corporate taxes. Wisconsin’s Legislature has passed more than 50 tax cuts since Republican took full control in 2011.”

Why did the same thing happen across so many states? “There’s a reason that so many of these tax-cut plans looked similar. (Arthur) Laffer, the conservative economist, personally worked on the proposals in Kansas and North Carolina, on top of crafting the plan to do away with the income tax in Oklahoma. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, also took advantage of newly sympathetic ears in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country, pushing an agenda of dramatically lowering taxes. Of all the proposals, Kansas’s was perhaps the boldest.”  Covert describes what Governor Sam Brownback called his ‘real live experiment’ in supply-side economics: “The package included a ‘March to Zero’ plan to gradually eliminate income and corporate taxes. Lawmakers reduced taxes again in 2013.”  However:  “The promised economic boom never materialized.”

Covert continues: “As the country emerged from the great Recession, some states decided to use their recovering revenues to restore education spending, but others chose to double down on tax cuts. By 2016, most states controlled by Democrats had restored their per-pupil spending, but only five of those in Republican hands had done likewise. Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma are among the state that passed income-tax cuts rather than restore spending on classrooms, despite all four seeing huge drops in per-pupil spending over the past decade.  Between 2008 and 2015, state K-12 funding fell noticeably, sometimes drastically: by nearly 37 percent in Arizona; nearly 16 percent in Oklahoma; just over 12 percent in North Carolina; nearly 11 percent in Wisconsin; 9 percent in Maine; almost 6 percent in Kentucky; and 1.4 percent in Ohio.”  In Kansas, under pressure when a long-running school funding case reached the Kansas Supreme Court, lawmakers finally raised taxes in 2017.

This spring we watched public schoolteachers in many of these states walk out of school to protest their flat salaries and the conditions their students face at school.  And in Arizona, among the states with the lowest public education spending, teachers followed up their walkout by gathering signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to increase taxes to pay for upgrading schools.  It looks as though teachers have collected enough signatures. The Arizona Republic’s Richard Ruelas reports that last week supporters of the referendum submitted 270,000 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State. Only 150,642 valid signatures are required to get the measure on the ballot.

Ruelas describes the ballot measure: “The proposed ballot initiative, called the Invest in Education Act, would raise the income-tax rate to 8 percent on individual income above $250,000 or household income above $500,000, and to 9 percent on individual income above $500,000 or household income above $1 million.  Currently, both incomes are taxed at 4.54 percent.”

Ruelas describes ultra-conservative Governor Doug Ducey’s response after teachers submitted more than a quarter of a million signatures for the Invest in Education Act: “For the activists, for the government union, it was never about teacher pay… What it was truly about… is what will likely be on the ballot this November, which is a tax increase.”

With their walkout this spring and their dogged effort to get a tax increase on the ballot, Arizona schoolteachers have succeeded in framing one of our society’s biggest ideological battles around core values. It is about the rights of wealthy individuals versus the public good.

Cruelty, Ineptitude, Lack of Oversight: Detaining Children and Failing to Educate or Care for Them

Today is the day that tiny children under the age of five, separated from their families at our southern border, were supposed to have been reunited with their families. But the records are all messed up. And the confusion and dysfunction extend beyond our “advanced” nation’s incapacity to reunite children and parents. There are also serious problems with the education children are said to be receiving while in detention.

In an editorial on Sunday, the Washington Post comments on a shocking report from the NY Times, that federal officials somehow deleted computer records and ID numbers which connected children to the families from whom they have been separated: “A jaw-dropping report in the New York Times detailed how officials at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection deleted records that would have enabled officials to connect parents with the children that had been removed from them. No apparent malice impelled their decision; rather, it was an act of administrative convenience, or incompetence, that led them to believe that, since parents and children were separated, they should be assigned separate case file numbers with nothing to connect them. The result is Third World-style government dysfunction that combines the original sin of an unspeakably cruel policy with the follow-on ineptitude of uncoordinated agencies unable to foresee the predictable consequences of their decisions….”

The Trump administration’s hastily imposed policies to detain parents and separate them from their children were imposed for the purpose of frightening immigrants away from our borders through the threat of separation itself.  Apparently officials in the Justice Department didn’t think about putting any kind of infrastructure in place to protect the rights of children or their parents after they were separated.

Neither was there advance planning to provide for the children what our law requires—education while in detention. In Saturday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein reported on the education programs in many of the shelters she has investigated: “Federal law requires that all children on American soil receive a free public education, regardless of their immigration status.  As the Trump administration expands the number of people detained at the border, shelters and detention facilities are ramping up their roles as makeshift schools, teaching English and civics classes, offering cooking lessons and setting up field trips to art museums.  But according to lawyers and educators with firsthand knowledge of the child detention system, the education offered inside the facilities is uneven and, for some children, starkly inadequate…. (T)here are more than 100 facilities across the country where migrant children are detained—some run by nonprofits such as Southwest Key, others by private prison companies and government agencies—and the overall quality of the education they provide largely remains a mystery because much of what happens in the shelters is rarely seen by the public.”

Goldstein describes an ICE facility in Pennsylvania with classes divided into two levels: a class for children age 2-11 and a more advanced class for children ages 12-18.  Developmentally that seems a radical redefinition of a one-room school. And, Goldstein adds, a number of the teachers are not fluent in Spanish; much of the class consists of worksheets or computer-driven instruction; and the curriculum is two-weeks long, which means that students detained for many weeks cycle through the same material over and over.  Many of the schools in shelters employ teachers who are not certified to teach English language skills.

The problem is not merely incompetence and poor planning.  In a largely hidden and unregulated network of institutions contracting for federal reimbursement, the temptation looms that someone will figure out how to profit.  In a recent report for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant examines one supposed nonprofit that has entered a growing “shelter” sector, Southwest Key, the operator of the shelter we have all read about in the closed Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. Bryant traces the connection of Southwest Key to a chain of charter schools and the for-profit companies that provide services to its charter schools: “Southwest Key indeed operates a charter business called East Austin College Prep which shares the same Austin street address.  Other ‘related organizations’ appearing on the same 2016-17 IRS filings include Southwest Key Maintenance, which received $113,000 for ‘janitorial services,’ and Cafe Del Sol, which received $336,000 for ‘food services.’ The school paid Southwest Key Programs, $1.14 million for ‘administration and rent.'”

Bryant explains: “It’s a cozy relationship among an operator of youth detention centers receiving federal funds and grants, ‘public ‘ charter schools funded by Texas taxpayers, a ‘nonprofit’ organization providing a lease agreement and administration services to the charters, and for-profit entities servicing the schools. And the fact the schools, which overwhelmingly enroll Hispanic Students, are connected to a booming business separating Hispanic students from their parents and detaining them in facilities at the border raises legitimate questions and concerns….”

He continues: “Southwest Key is also expanding its charter school business… and the detention center enterprise is poised to work hand in hand with its expanding school network… The charter operation, which recently rebranded under management of Promesa Public Schools, is approved to expand to new campuses for the fall semester of 2018 in Corpus Christi and Brownsville, where Southwest operates four immigrant shelters including Case Padre, the detention center in the old Walmart store.  According to Dallas News, leaders from Promesa and Southwest Key have approached officials, who oversee education of school aged children in Brownsville and the surrounding county, with a proposal to use the new Brownsville charter school’s resources and new campus ‘to serve about 1,000 kids being housed in the nonprofit’s shelters.'”

It is possible, of course, that Promesa Charter Schools will be models for educating detained immigrant youths, but with so little oversight, there is neither a way to protect the public’s investment nor the children’s rights. Our U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is noted for disdaining systems and lifting up the needs of “individual” kids. What she forgets is that the role of government oversight and public systems is to ensure the provision of services to meet the needs of individual kids and to protect their rights along with the investment by the public.

Remember instead the Washington Post editorial board’s warning about what we’ve got right now on the southern border: “Third World-style government dysfunction that combines the original sin of an unspeakably cruel policy with the follow-on ineptitude of uncoordinated agencies unable to foresee the predictable consequences of their decisions.”

Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall.  It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.

The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”

The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB).  Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”

While The Court approved this system as the path to equity,  the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong.  Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.

Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said.  But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”

Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”

In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.

What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008.  Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.

On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.

Oklahoma Primary Election Results and Supreme Court Decision Show Teachers Changed the Narrative

The New Yorker‘s Rivka Galchen reports on the stunning results in Oklahoma’s primary election. Being anti-tax seems to have doomed several prominent Republican incumbents. And many public school educators, running for office for the very first time, won their parties’ nominations. The Oklahoma Policy Institute’s David Blatt tells Galchen: “It’s the opposite of the way it has been, when legislators expected to pay for it in votes if they supported a tax increase… Now they’re paying for it in votes for having been against a tax increase. That is pretty dramatic for Oklahoma.”

The Associated Press‘s Tim Talley describes the role of public education in Oklahoma’s primary election: “Almost 100 schoolteachers and administrators filed as candidates in this year’s round of elections and at least 55 won their races in the primary or advanced to runoffs in August. Many of them were motivated by the Republican-led Legislature’s cuts to funding for public schools in recent years and nearly a decade without a pay raise, funding issues that prompted thousands of educators to walk off the job in April—a walkout that coincided with the filing period for this year’s round of elections.”

Galchen analyzes the results: “One question going into the elections was how well teacher candidates would fare; another… was how well the incumbent Republican legislators who had voted against the teachers’ pay raise would fare. Republican legislators who opposed the pay raise were mostly either beaten or forced into runoffs. Chuck Strohm, a Republican state representative, lost by more than twenty-five points to a more moderate opponent. The like-minded Scott McEachin, who represents a neighboring district—they are both solidly red areas—lost by a similarly decisive margin. Meanwhile, more than fifty educator candidates advanced….”

And, recently a referendum petition filed by Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!—a referendum to nullify the modest tax increases the Oklahoma Legislature passed (by the outrageous 75 percent supermajority required by Oklahoma law) to pay for modest raises for school teachers—has been rejected by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. These were the first tax increases passed in Oklahoma since 1990. For Tulsa World, Barbara Hobercock reports: “A referendum petition seeking to repeal tax hikes used to fund teacher raises is invalid…. Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! sought to ask voters to repeal House Bill 1010xx, which hiked taxes on cigarettes, little cigars, fuel and gross (energy) production. State Question 799 drew two legal challenges before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. ‘Upon review, we hold that the petition is legally insufficient and invalid,’ the court opinon said.  It ordered SQ 799 stricken from the ballot. The tax increases will take effect July 1, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.”  Further, “The court ruled that had the tax hike measure been repealed, it would not have nullified the teacher pay raises contained in House Bill 1023xx. The average raise is $6,100.”

Hobercock adds that the court will permit those seeking to repeal the taxes to file a new referendum, but only if the anti-tax organizers can secure 41,000 valid signatures by July 18. None of the signatures on the first petition can be reused.

How is it that the funding for the public institutions in which we have traditionally educated our children has come to encapsulate our society’s ideological war?  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education has become a top priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Oklahoma’s fight over taxes and teachers’ salaries epitomizes the battle about the role of taxes and the public good that is engulfing our society. Hobercock presents the competing narratives by which Oklahomans have described the state Supreme Court’s recent decision and the stunning primary election results. A spokesperson for the anti-tax Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! predicts his organization will erase the new taxes by managing by July 18th to secure the required 41,000 signatures: “The people did not support this egregious and unnecessary, burdensome tax hike. The people will have their say…. Our mistakes will be corrected.  Our motivation has been renewed.”

On the other hand, Oklahoma’s State School Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, presents the view that seems to have prevailed in last week’s primary election: “At long last, we can reward our dedicated, hardworking public school teachers with the competitive pay they deserve… On the heels of a school year in which 1 in 7 students was taught by an untrained teacher, we can, and we must, now begin stemming the tide of Oklahoma’s crippling teacher shortage. Today’s decision clears the way for funding regionally competitive teacher pay, ushering in a new era of stability that is not only a win for public education, but for our kids and the future of our state.”