School Vouchers are One of the Ways Privatization Is Undermining Our Society

Private school tuition vouchers are a big deal in Ohio right now. 100 school districts filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the rapidly growing statewide EdChoice Voucher Program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax dollars from the public schools which desperately need the money for educating the state’s 1.8 million public school students and because the voucher program has accelerated racial segregation.

The expansion of school vouchers always loomed as former U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s primary cause. Congress managed to avoid passing her proposed federal $5 billion tuition tax credit Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program despite that every year for four years she tried to insert this program into the federal education budget. But today many of the state legislatures are growing voucher programs or starting new voucher initiatives.

Here in Ohio, a professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Stitzlein explained last week why she thinks giving parents marketplace choices about their children’s schooling is dangerous for the rest of us: “Voucher programs hand over decision-making power solely to guardians of school-aged children, who compose less than a quarter of American adults. These guardians then independently decide where to spend a taxpayer-funded voucher. Often, they look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars… And because private schools are not required to accept all students or to provide equitable services to all children, communities lose the ability to demand fair educational opportunities without discrimination toward any child.”

The continuing momentum across the state legislatures for private school tuition vouchers is only one aspect of the movement toward privatization of public life. In a new book, The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian examine school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools as merely one strand of a movement that has also included attempts to privatize healthcare, water, transportation, environmental policy, the criminal justice system, Social Security, public libraries, and higher education. Cohen and Mikaelian consider the following questions regarding how growing privatization threatens our democracy .

Why should citizens be paying closer attention to growing privatization? “Understanding privatization means understanding that it is first and foremost a political strategy… (B)ut it has also become a grab for billions of dollars in contracts and fees. In the years since it sprang from the mind of Milton Friedman as a way to undercut government ‘monopoly,’ it has also become a way for profiteers to tap into the $7 trillion of public revenue… spent by local, state, and federal government agencies each year and carve out a piece (sometimes a very big piece) for themselves.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 21).

What is the definition of ‘privatization’?  “Many define privatization as simply the outsourcing of a good or a service to a private company, but it is much more than that… Privatization is the transfer of control over public goods to private hands. Sometimes this happens during procurement—the outsourcing of public services to a private company. In other cases it’s due to austerity—reducing public funding of a vital public good and letting private options take over. Or it can happen through deregulation—when we eliminate or fail to enforce public control…. In all these ways, privatization is a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 4-5)

What are public goods and who gets to define them?  “Most economics textbooks, and many economists, define public goods in pretty strict terms: they are things that are nonexcludable (meaning that it’s either impossible or impractical to prevent people from using them) and nonrivalrous (meaning that one person using them does not take away from another person’s use).”  Cohen and Mikaelian, however, believe that definition is incomplete: “In a democratic society public goods should not be defined by the market. They should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… Clearly, it is possible to exclude some people from schools… But we decided long ago that this would not happen at K-12 public schools.  We could make all our roads exclusive, but we decided that it would be better for both the economy and each of us individually if the public controlled most roads, paid for them, and permitted access.” (The Privatization of Everything,  pp. 5-6)

Who is responsible for protecting the public?  “In a democracy, it is the public’s job—not the market’s—to decide what to cede to the private sphere… In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine)…. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 7)

How can a responsible public protect public goods?  “That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. Public control is exercised in different ways; the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods….  What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them…. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 8)

What is the difference between citizens and consumers?  “We are both citizens and consumers, but privatization encourages us to approach public goods merely as a shopper while convincing us to forget that fellow citizens need that public good too…  As consumers, our only responsibility is to ourselves. As consumers, we promote exclusions, but at the same time we are excluded. We do not have power over what is given to us; we have no right to expect a voice in what choices we have. Private corporations decide for us… (F)or things that we value both for ourselves and for the common good—clean water, education, public health, safe roads and bridges—let’s approach these as citizens of a democracy, as co-creators of public goods… as part of something larger and not merely as isolated individuals, and as a people defined by our responsibilities rather than merely by our desires.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 14)

What is the consequence of failing to protect the public from rampant privatization?  “Privatization is not just about money or about who provides what service; privatization is about values, about whether we are committed to promoting the general welfare as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution…. Privatization… facilitates the upward transfer of wealth, exacerbates inequality, creates powerful interests, separates us from each other, and segregates us by race and class… Reclaiming public goods… is about who we are and what we believe.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 17-18)

Cohen and Mikaelian conclude: “Our definition of public good boils down to a few simple ideas. Public goods are things we all benefit from even if we don’t personally use them, such as education, public transportation, the safety net, and the justice system. They are the things that are essential for life, including water and clean air. They are things that can make such broad and fundamental improvements to our quality of life that no one should be excluded… They are the things that recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence and make us a healthier, fairer, more compassionate and more democratic nation.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 284)

Yesterday morning, when I thought this post was complete, I happened upon this provocative twitter thread from Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider considers several other ways the privatization of education undermines the public good:

“The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is, schools should respond to what their customers want. I have a few major concerns about this.

  • “First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill. Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align with the public good.
  • “Second… Consider how many people in a typical business ‘make something, vs. how many play supporting roles.  Almost everyone in a school is on the ‘making’ side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean organizations.
  • “Third schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback. but we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
  • “Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution. If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school, who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
  • “(T)here’s also the principal-agent problem…. In schools, the ‘customer’ is… who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
  • “(I)f we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
  • “If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity. That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer. That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
  • “Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation. There are very few places left in our society where we come together around our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers. If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?”

Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

100 Ohio School Districts File a Lawsuit Declaring EdChoice Vouchers Deprive Ohio’s Public School Districts of Essential Revenue

On Tuesday, 100 Ohio public school districts and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution. EdChoice is Ohio’s rapidly growing, publicly funded school voucher program.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “A coalition of 100 school districts sued Ohio over private school vouchers Tuesday, saying that the hundreds of millions of public dollars funneled away from public schools have created an educational system that’s unconstitutional.”

The lead plaintiffs are Columbus City Schools, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, Richmond Heights Local School District, Lima City Schools, Barberton City Schools, Cleveland Heights parents on behalf of their minor sons—Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly, and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. The Cleveland law firm of Walter Haverfield is representing the plaintiffs.

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs declare: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

The Ohio Legislature incorporated a new “Cupp-Patterson” Fair School Funding Plan into the current biennial budget last June, but plaintiffs charge that the simultaneous expansion of EdChoice vouchers in that same budget has blocked the phase-in and full funding of that school funding plan: “The Ohio Department of Education funds EdChoice Program Vouchers from the budget appropriation designated for public schools. Because public funds are finite, funding EdChoice Program Vouchers out of the foundation funding designated for public school districts inevitably depletes the resources designated by the legislature for educating Ohio’s public school students. H.B. 110 (the state budget bill) initially incorporated the salient features of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort to fund Ohio’s public schools adequately and equitably as required by the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State…. However, due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice program, the enacted version of H.B. 110 funded only up to one-third of the increases required by the proposed Fair School Funding Plan over the next two fiscal years.”  “(T)he Fair School Funding Plan was not fully funded due to the ballooning costs of the EdChoice Program. Only 16.67% of the Fair School Funding Plan is being funded through Fiscal Year 2022 and 33% of the Fair School Funding Plan will be funded through Fiscal Year 2023, as specifically delineated in H.B. 110.  This means the General Assembly will meet only a fraction of its constitutional obligation, by the standards it has adopted, to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools for Fiscal Year 2022.”

The new lawsuit charges that the Fair School Funding Plan had been formulated to address inadequate state funding of public schools over recent years: “Over the last decade, the formulas implemented by the General Assembly for funding Ohio’s public schools reflected the amount the General Assembly was willing to spend on public education, rather than the realistic cost of providing a thorough and efficient education to all of Ohio’s students. Due to budget freezes or minimal increases over the last decade, state funding to Ohio’s public school districts has not even kept pace with inflation since Fiscal Year 2011. Additionally, because the funding formula was frozen in Fiscal Year 2020-21 at the 2019 level, but vouchers and “community schools” (which is what Ohio calls charter schools) were funded by way of deductions from total school funding,  affected public school districts lost approximately $193 million in state funding during these formula freezes. In contrast, the per pupil EdChoice Program Voucher payments rose by 15% for a grade 1-8 voucher and by 25% for a grade 9-12 voucher for Fiscal Year 2022 alone.”

The lawsuit delineates the losses in public school funding for one of the plaintiff districts: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, for example, is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”

The Complaint names five counts:

  1. “Creation of one or more systems of uncommon schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  2. “Failure to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  3. “Segregation in violation of the thorough and efficient system of common schools as provided in Article VI, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution.”
  4. “Diversion of funding in violation of the “No Religious or Other Sect Shall Ever Have Any Exclusive Right To or Control Of, Any Part of the School Funds of the State” clause of Article VI.”
  5. “Declaratory Judgement—Violation of Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 2 (asserted by Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly only).” This section continues: “No compelling or legitimate state interest can account for this discriminatory treatment of Plaintiff Students in comparison with their private school counterparts. No valid government explanation can justify spending two to ten times more per pupil to subsidize private school tuition than the per-pupil amounts paid by the state to educate Ohio’s public school students… Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff Students are also entitled to permanent injunctive relief barring further EdChoice Program payments to subsidize private school tuition made from the state’s foundation school fund.”

At the press conference where the lawsuit was announced, a member of the Richmond Heights Local Schools Board of Education, Nneka Jackson addressed the third count, that EdChoice Vouchers have illegally exacerbated racial segregation in Ohio’s public schools: “If someone tells you this is about helping poor minority children, hook them up to a lie detector test ASAP and stand back because the sparks are going to fly… About 40 percent of Richmond Heights residents are white. Before the EdChoice private school voucher program, about 26 percent of the students in the Richmond Heights School District were white and 74 percent were students of color. Today, after EDChoice, Richmond Heights is three percent white and 97 percent students of color. Private schools are allowed to discriminate, plain and simple, based on disability, disciplinary records, academic standing, religion and financial status. These are often proxies for race and other protected characteristics. Ohio is essentially engaged in state-sponsored discrimination in admissions and retention. You know who can’t do this? Public schools. Common schools.”

Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

New Book Includes Wonderful Retrospective Essay by the Late Mike Rose

I just received my pre-ordered copy of a fine new collection of essays from Teachers College Press.  In Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, editors David Berliner and Carl Hermanns pull together reflections by 29 writers, who, as the editors declare: “create a vivid and complex portrait of public education in these United States.”

It seems especially appropriate at the end of 2021 to consider one of the essays included in this new book—probably Mike Rose’s final essay—“Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric.” Rose, the wonderful writer and UCLA professor of education, died unexpectedly in August.

Rose considers the many possible lenses through which a public can consider and evaluate its public schools: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures.  Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.”

“Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal.”

In this retrospective essay, Rose reflects on a journey that resulted in his landmark book on public education, Possible Lives.  For several years Rose visited public school classrooms across the United States, classrooms recommended to him by national and local experts as sites of wonderful teaching. He begins his new essay in rural eastern Kentucky remembering an evening visit to a bar at the end of a day observing the high school social studies classroom of Bud Reynolds.”This testimony to the importance of the public school opens in the AmVets Club bar in Martin, Kentucky, population 550, circa 1990.  I am here as a guest of Bud Reynolds, a celebrated social studies teacher at nearby Wheelwright High School, about whom I would be writing for a book called Possible Lives (published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995) documenting good public school classrooms.” Bud introduces Rose to two friends, Tim Allen and Bobby Sherman, both of whom work for the one remaining railroad that runs through Martin. “While Bud and Tim play a video game, I end up talking with Bobby, a conversation that reveals the place of school in both memory and the practice of day-to-day living…  What… stands out to me is the role several of Bobby’s high school teachers play in his life.  An English teacher changed his reading habits, and in a way, I assume, that contributes to his current political and social views… I also can’t help but wonder about the degree to which the intellectual challenging of his chemistry teacher—the cognitive gave and take, the pleasure in it, his esteem for his teacher’s intellectual ability—the degree to which this extended experience plays into Sherman’s own sense of self as a thinker, and as proof of the presence of ‘damned intelligent people’ in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Field.”

Rose’s essay now takes his journey to a different kind of public school setting: “Let us move now from a town of 550 to Chicago, a city with the third largest school district in the nation, and to the story of a school and the community it represents… Like Martin, KY, Chicago was part of my itinerary for Possible Lives.  I visited six public schools in Chicago, one of which was Dyett Middle School, named after Walter Henri Dyett, a legendary music teacher in the Bronzeville community of Chicago’s South Side… From its inception in 1975, Dyett was not only a valuable resource for neighborhood children, but also represented a rich local history of Black artistic and educational achievement.” At Dyett Middle School, Rose listens as an English teacher engages 6th grade students in an open discussion about the books on which they will be writing reports and about questions and concerns they have about the teacher’s expectations for the reports they will be writing.  As classes change, Rose stops in the hallway to talk with several students: “‘Students learn here,’ one boy tells me. ‘They teach you how to speak and write,’ a girl adds. ‘You feel at home here,’ says another boy. ‘They don’t make fun of you if you mess up.'”

Now Rose updates more than two decades of news about Dyett: “Twenty years later, Dyett was one of 54 ‘failed’ schools targeted for closure by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CEO of the district.  These schools were ‘underenrolled and underperforming.'” Dyett had been transformed into a high school, and, “By 2000, interwoven with large-scale transformations in the economy, urban revitalization projects, and changing demographics and gentrification, a new wave of school reforms had some urban districts attempting to reorganize their schools into a ‘portfolio’ of choices. Some schools were converted to selective admission schools or to magnet schools… while other schools were defined as general admission schools.  Add to this mix the growing number of charter schools, and one result is the diminishment of general admission community schools like Dyett, as their enrollment is drained away.”

Except that the school meant too much too the community: “But the community around Dyett wouldn’t allow it, mounting a protracted, multipronged campaign that led, finally to a hunger strike that made national news… The children I saw during my visit to Dyett would have been in their late twenties by the time the order to close the school was issued—their parents in their forties or fifties. We have, then, a sizeable number of people in the community who associate Dyett with, as the 6th grader put it, feeling at home, with being valued and guided, and with learning about themselves, each other, and the world.”

As he pursues his purpose—reflecting on public schools and the social fabric—Rose rejects one of the lenses he named earlier through which a society can observe and evaluate its public schools: “With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics.”  This is, of course, the rubric of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and all the rest of the two-decade technocratic experiment with corporate style public school accountability.

“As a rule, public policy decisions in our technocratic age tend to focus on the structural bureaucratic and quantitative dimensions of the institutions or phenomena in question—that which can be formalized, graphed, measured.  The other perspectives we’ve been considering, those dealing with economic, political, and social history and with the place of the school in a community’s social fabric, tend to be given short shrift or are ignored entirely… Creating or expanding opportunity for underserved populations is… an equity goal given for contemporary school reform policy. As we saw in the Dyett/Chicago example, opportunity was put into practice by creating choice options—which, paradoxically, involved closing existing options. In technocratic frameworks, opportunity easily becomes an abstraction.  But opportunity is a lived experience, grounded in a time and place, and therefore, there can be situation specific constraints on opportunity.”

Rose concludes: “The journey I took across the country visiting schools for the writing of Possible Lives enhanced my understanding of the complex position the public school holds in the social fabric. Journey… provides a literary device to sequence my visits to different schools, a narrative throughline, a travelogue of schooling.  Journey also has psychological significance. A journey is an odyssey of discovery…. I would learn a huge amount about the United States and the schools in it—but metaphorically of inner worlds as well….  And journey becomes method… it… has the potential to open one to experience, to learn, to grasp…. You talk to a guy in a bar who lives his decades-old education through conversation, an education he received in a school founded three-quarters of a century ago when the region’s economy was emerging… If this kind of journey attunes you to the particulars of place and its people, it also provides the longer view. As you visit schools, you see similarities across difference and, eventually, interconnectedness and pattern.  There is a grand idea in all this—and you sense it—a vast infrastructure of public schooling.”

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in New Church-State Separation, School Voucher Case

On December 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in another school voucher case that tests the separation of church and state. The case is Carson v. Makin, about school vouchers in the state of Maine.

Carson v. Makin was litigated by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. This case is not an example of parents who want vouchers going out and looking for a law firm to defend their case. For decades the Institute for Justice has been attempting to undermine the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of religion from the mandates of government.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ freedom to choose their religion or no religion, and to practice religion as they choose: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause declares that government won’t favor or establish any one religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from telling citizens how they should worship.

The Institute for Justice first litigated cases on school vouchers in the Cleveland voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that vouchers are constitutional as long as the state gives the money to the parents and allows the parents to choose the school instead of awarding the voucher directly to the religious school.  It was a case decided on the Establishment Clause, which says government cannot endorse or establish any particular religion. Zelman v. Simmons Harris significantly expanded school vouchers across the states.

Then in 2020, when it argued for the constitutionality of state dollars going directly to religious schools in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Institute for Justice used an entirely new pretext, this time under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The Institute for Justice alleged that if a state awards tax-funded vouchers for private schools, it can’t discriminate against religious schools just because they are religious. The logic seems tortured, but today’s U.S. Supreme Court majority accepted it.

In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center traces the history of public funding for private high schools in some of Maine’s small towns: “The case, Carson v. Makin, challenges Maine’s exclusion of ‘sectarian’ schools—those that include religious instruction—from the state’s ‘tuitioning’ program. Maine has, for nearly 150 years, allowed towns too small to operate high schools of their own to pay for their students to attend other public or private high schools. The state has, since 1980, placed a ban on schools that would use the public funds for sectarian (religious) teaching… In Maine, tuitioning is used as a way to deliver public education, with the private schools standing in the shoes of the public schools that would otherwise have to be built. As such, it would make no legal or policy sense to hold the private schools to a different set of rules around curriculum, discrimination or proselytizing.”

A professor of law at the University of Dayton, Charles J. Russo explains how the issue in Carson v. Makin differs from Espinoza v. Montana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the state could not discriminate against a school based on its religious status. Carson v. Makin is about the school’s practice—the explicit teaching of religion, which the state of Maine prohibits. On this matter, the state has prevailed in two appeals of this case: “The federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its “tuitioning” statute did not violate the rights of the parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously affirmed in favor of the state… First, the First Circuit decided the requirement that schools be ‘nonsectarian’ did not discriminate solely based on religion or punish the plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their religion.  This is because the rule has a ‘use-based’ limitation—which may prove to be a crucial distinction. In other words, sectarian schools are denied funding not because of their religious identity, the First Circuit wrote, but because of ‘the religious use that they would make of it.'”

Following oral arguments last Wednesday, VOX’s Ian Millhiser reported: “At an oral argument held Wednesday morning, all six members of the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared likely to blow a significant new hole in the wall separating church and state… All six of the Court’s Republican appointees appeared to think that this exclusion for religious schools is unconstitutional—meaning that Maine would be required to pay for tuition at pervasively religious schools. Notably, that could include schools that espouse hateful worldviews. According to the state, one of the plaintiff families in Carson wants the state to pay for a school that requires teachers to sign a contract stating that ‘the Bible says that God recognizes homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’ and that ‘such deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’ In the likely event that these plaintiffs’ families prevail, that will mark a significant escalation in the Court’s decisions benefiting the religious right… The justices are likely to place some limits on its decision in Carson, but it’s not yet clear how they will justify those limits… (I)t’s hard to draw a principled line between a Court decision requiring Maine to fund religious education as part of its existing private school tuition program and a decision requiring all states with a public school system to fund religious education.”

It would be a big mistake to assume that most American religions are in favor of any of these cases. Under the free exercise clause, a large number of religious organizations do not want government interfering with their beliefs and practices. On behalf of 24 organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief arguing that the Supreme Court should not, under the Free Exercise clause, affirm the constitutionality of publicly-funded vouchers for religious schools in Maine.  The amici in this case include: the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Catholics for Choice, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ; the Hindu American Foundation, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Churches, The Sikh Coalition; and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The General Counsel and Associate Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Holly Hollman explains why, from the point of view of the organizations filing this amicus brief, this libertarian school voucher case is bad for religion: “Should states be forced to fund the training of young men and women to serve the Lord and become leaders in their church?  Of course not…. In Carson v. Makin, parents are seeking state support for their children’s private religious education. The Baptist Joint Committee and its allies are urging the Court to recognize the historical reasons for keeping the government out of religion… These concerns include protecting individual conscience, respecting inherent limits of government authority in religious matters, and avoiding the creation of divisions based on religious differences.” Hollman reviews Espinoza v. Montana (2020) in which “the Court… held that a Montana tax credit program that funded scholarships to private schools must include private religious schools, notwithstanding Montana law intended to separate church and state.” She explains that in Espinoza, the Court held that the tax credit program violated the Free Exercise Clause because Montana provided tax credits for private schools but excluded some schools because of their religious status. She explains further: “The Carson case tests whether this Free Exercise Clause nondiscrimation rule will be extended to prohibit state programs that are designed to avoid government involvement in religious uses of government funds—such as the explicitly religious activity of providing an education designed to instill a biblical worldview. In our view, it should not.”

Finally in this school year when libertarian organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Manhattan Institute are coordinating and scripting the actions of parents mobbing school board meetings demanding the end of mask mandates, the banning of books, and limitations on what can be taught about slavery and racism, there is another way to look at this case as part of today’s American ethos of individualism and so-called parents’ rights.  Nobody is trying to stop parents from choosing a religious school, but the case of Carson v. Makin, litigated by the Institute for Justice, is intended to force government to pay for the parents’ private school choices.

J4J Alliance Organizes Urban Parents to Demand Federal Dollars for Full-Service Community Schools

Throughout this autumn, we have been reading about loud protests at local school board meetings, protests against mask wearing and and honest teaching about slavery in American history.  These disruptive protests have been organized by groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education. The strategy here is being scripted by far-right think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.

But another important community organizing initiative, supported by the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Network and coordinated from place to place by the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), has grown and solidified over the past decade. The Schott Foundation describes this work: “The Opportunity to Learn Network has been at the forefront of every major positive shift in public schooling for more than a decade: trailblazing education funding campaigns; kickstarting the school discipline reform movement, and establishing the community schools model as the future of the American schoolhouse. How do we win systemic change?  Through grassroots organizing.  Education justice philanthropy centers ‘on-the-ground’ organizing, building the power of the people closest to the problem, so they can transform the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial injustice.”

A leader in this effort with the Schott Foundation is the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supports parent and student organizing in cities across the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the Camden Parents Union, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Jersey City,  the Paterson Education Fund/Parent Education Organizing Council, and Parents United for Local School Education in Newark;
  • In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Education Justice, and the Urban Youth Collaborative;
  • In Pennsylvania, the Education Rights Network & One Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Student Union, Racial Justice Now, Youth On Board, and Youth United for Change;
  • In Michigan, the Detroit Life Coalition, and Keep the Vote No Takeover of Detroit;
  • In Illinois, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization of Chicago, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Chicago;
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project, and Parents on the Move;
  • In California, the Oakland Public Education Network;
  • In Kansas, Kansas Justice Advocates;
  • In Wisconsin, Schools and Communities United of Milwaukee;
  • In Arkansas, Grassroots Arkansas; and
  • In Connecticut, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition.

Earlier this week at the National Press Club, the Schott Foundation and J4J convened allies—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD and Congressmen Jamal Bowman (D-NY) and Chuy Garcia (D-IL)—to support the Equity or Else Campaign and to advocate for the educational equity initiatives in President Biden’s proposed federal budget for the current fiscal year. Two of the most important items in Biden’s budget proposal are, first, doubling Title I funding, which supports public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and second, allocating more than $443 million for full-service, wraparound Community Schools, a significant increase over this year’s $30 million investment.

The federal budget is always supposed to be passed by September 30, but Congress has, as usual, delayed the vote with a series of continuing resolutions. To avoid a government shutdown this week, Congress passed another continuing resolution until February 8, 2022.  The Equity or Else Commission will hold town hall meetings, undertake “listening projects with people in under-served communities across the country,” and organize local community members to advocate for President Biden’s education priorities.

In an article last summer for The Progressive, education writer Jeff Bryant explained why President Biden’s proposal to expand full-service Community Schools—which locate medical, dental, mental health, and social services right in the school—signifies a radical and much needed shift in the direction of federal public education policy:  “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability. It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores).”

Bryant continues: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuses’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service Community Schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Kudos to the Schott Foundation and the Journey for Justice Alliance for convening allies and organizing parents to demand support for the schools in our nation’s poorest communities. President Biden’s proposal to expand the federal budget for full-service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million will, if enacted by Congress, be a ground-breaking investment to better equip public schools to serve families. Grassroots action by all of the member organizations of the Journey for Justice Alliance is urgently needed to ensure that this exciting expansion of Community Schools is fully realized.

Build Back Better Would Reduce Economic Injustice Among America’s Children

Today, with the Build Back Better Bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, it’s a good time to reflect on the Victorian British attitude that prefigured Americans’ faith in personal responsibility. Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

This blog quoted from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in December of 2017 in a post criticizing an important economic policy: Congressional passage of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. In our culture, even though we profess a commitment to progressive taxation, we like to use tax cuts to reward the enterprising—celebrities, tech wizards, and enormous corporations.

Assuming that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we publicly neglect those who fall behind. The problem has been bipartisan. The 1996 welfare reform law Bill Clinton pushed through Congress was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Its name presumed that the poor are irresponsible and lazy. Welfare’s replacement—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—left our society with alarming poverty and inequality. The law was inequitably administered by state governments.  It also turned out to live up to its name: Temporary Assistance. Many states phased out assistance and cut out the employment training programs that had not been designed well enough to prepare workers for available jobs. And the minimum wage stayed so low that people who did find jobs were paid so little they could not rise above the federal poverty level.  Nobody did anything about the children whose families struggled to survive.

Right now, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Build Back Better Bill which represents a radically different philosophy: President Biden’s commitment to helping children whose families live in poverty instead of punishing their parents.  The U.S. Senate is negotiating its version, which many hope to see passed by the end of 2021.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why a single reform in the Child Tax Credit—making it fully refundable for families with very low income—is for America’s children the most important element in Build Back Better: “Making the full Child Tax Credit available for families with low or no earnings in a year, often called making it ‘fully refundable,’ is expected to generate historic reductions in child poverty compared to what it would have been otherwise. Before the Rescue Plan made the full Child Tax credit fully available in 2021, 27 million children in families with low or no income in a year received less than the full credit or no credit at all.” In the American Rescue relief bill last spring, Congress made three significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  The House version of the Build Back Better Bill extends the first two provisions only through 2022, but the House version permanently makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent.  In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.”  “Until last spring’s COVID relief bill, many children had been excluded because “their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most.  The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

In a new report last Friday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns about what we can expect if the U.S. Senate fails to pass the Build Back Better Bill by the end of December, 2021 and allows to expire the reforms instituted temporarily for this year alone in last spring’s American Rescue Plan: “If Build Back Better isn’t enacted, the Child Tax Credit would revert to providing the least help to the children who need it most — and some 27 million children would once again get a partial credit or none at all because their families’ incomes are too low.”

The First Focus for Children Campaign outlines other urgently needed reforms included in the House version of the Build Back Better Bill: “The Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP, which covers roughly 10 million children would be made permanent, sparing it from serial expiration every few years.”  The bill would also require states to make children’s eligibility continuous over all 12 months for CHIP and Medicaid; would guarantee 12 months (instead of 60-days) of postpartum coverage for mothers on Medicaid; and would provide 4-weeks of paid leave for new parents and expand family leave. Build Back Better would significantly expand access to quality child care and phase in universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. For young adults aging out of foster care, the law would lower the age of eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit from 25 to 18. The bill would also address hunger among children by making meals available during the summer months when school is not in session.

None of these programs directly invests in public education, but together they will improve educational opportunity. Why?  We know that a family’s economic circumstances affect children’s opportunity at school. Recently this blog covered a new report that 101,000 students in the New York City Public Schools—10 percent of the district’s students—were homeless in the past year.  Decades of research show that such challenges directly affect students’ experiences at school.

The Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former president of the American Educational Research Association, David Berliner explains: “It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

in 2013, the Stanford University educational sociologist, Sean Reardon released a massive data report confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and rapidly growing residential patterns of economic segregation in metropolitan areas. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents. The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

For the sake of our children and to ensure they can thrive at home and at school, the United States needs to do better. During the Victorian era, Charles Dickens castigated a society that forgot about the well-being of children and sought to punish their parents for laziness. Today, we ought to notice that, like the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, in Oliver Twist, too many members of Congress have for decades conditioned any sort of public assistance as a punishment for parents’ lack of “personal responsibility.” For too long, Congress has been willing to forget our public obligation to the children who are always the victims of poverty.  President Biden’s approach in Build Back Better instead addresses the vulnerability and distress of too many American children—as a matter of economic justice.

Michael Bloomberg Continues to Invest in Expanding the Charter Schools that Undermine Public Education

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and a press release last week from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg announced: “Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a national five-year $750 million effort to support the success and growth of existing charter and autonomous schools, open new high quality charter schools, and create city- and state-level conditions that will help sustain this progress. The plan will create 150,000 additional seats for children in charter schools in 20 U.S. metro areas, including New York City.”

Both versions of the announcement blame problems caused by COVID-19 school disruption on what Bloomberg continues to believe are “failing” public schools: “The past 18 months have shown that the American public education system is tragically broken, and we must act immediately to close the student achievement gaps….” “Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement.” And he blames the teachers unions: “Charters, which generally don’t operate under union contracts, also have more flexibility to manage staffing, curriculum, testing and compensation.”

These are old, old Bloomberg themes.  Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City in 2001 and granted mayoral control of the NYC public schools in 2002.  Under the leadership of his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Bloomberg accelerated school choice in NYC by expanding the number of small high schools, phasing out and closing comprehensive neighborhood high schools and rapidly expanding competition with charter schools, which, beginning in 2005, were allowed to co-locate in public school buildings, often taking needed space from their host public schools.

While Bloomberg likes to be known for accelerating the growth of technocratic school reform based on test scores, school choice, and the expansion of privately operated charter schools, there were overwhelming ongoing problems of unequal access and opportunity for students in the NYC public schools during the period of Bloomberg’s mayoral governance. Here is merely one example, documented in a stunning 2013 report in the last year of Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure.  In Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform summarized the history of the school district’s treatment of what were in New York at the time known as “over the counter students.” These are students who do not participate in the annual spring school choice application and lottery process—students who register in the fall or move to the district after school has begun. They include immigrant students and many of the city’s poorest or homeless students.

The Annenberg Institute’s report describes “a persistent criticism of the Bloomberg-era reforms—that the Department of Education (DOE) intensifies the challenges for struggling schools by assigning disproportionate numbers of high-needs students to those schools without providing the supports and assistance those schools need, and that such assignment policies undermine struggling schools’ instructional capacity, reduce staff confidence and morale, lower student achievement indicators, and increase suspensions and other measures of behavior disorder, all of which contribute to the data the DOE uses to target those schools for closing.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 10 percent higher rate of Over the Counter student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “As recent studies have shown, phasing-out-schools become increasingly less able to meet their students’ needs as their staffs diminish… (T)he DOE continues to assign Over the Counter students to high schools in the process of phasing out… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out-schools, the Over the Counter assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”

In last week’s press release about his coming investment of $750 million to expand charter schools, Bloomberg accuses public schools of widespread failure—compared to charter schools—to raise student achievement as measured by test scores.  It would take a book to document all the ways charter schools have figured out to select their students and shape their enrollments to produce higher test scores. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Wagma Mommandi have just published such a book. In the publicity Teachers College Press released about their new book, Mommandi and Welner explain: “(W)e discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores…. (W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students; or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

Bloomberg’s support for the expansion of privately operated charter schools and political candidates who support the growth of the charter school sector has been going on across the United States for years. Considerable reporting during Bloomberg’s 2020 Presidential campaign surfaced some of his spending on behalf of charter school expansion. For Time Magazine, Alana Semuels reported:

“Bloomberg’s money has gone especially far in California, where two ethnically and economically diverse school districts, Los Angeles and Oakland, have embraced charter schools. He gave $500,000 to the California Charter Schools Association’s advocates Independent Expenditure Committee in February of 2017, which in turn spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two pro-charter candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified School District school board.  After that race—at the time, the most expensive school board race in U.S. history—pro-charter board members held the majority on the school board for the first time and then appointed Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no experience running a school or a district, to be superintendent.”

Semuels continues: “Bloomberg’s funding in the Oakland school board races continued in 2018, when he gave $250,000 to GO Public Schools California.  In a 2018 campaign filing, Families and Educators for Public Education said it had received $120,000 from Bloomberg through GO Public Schools California.”  “Bloomberg has also funded political action committees and candidates in school board races outside of California.  He spent $290,000 on political action committees supporting pro-charter candidates in a 2011 Louisiana state school board race…. In 2015, ahead of another state school board race, he gave $1.4 million to Empower Louisiana Inc. ... a political action committee that advocated for pro-charter candidates. Seven of the eight ‘pro-reform’ candidates who supported charter schools won their elections. Bloomberg also gave $400,000 to a PAC backing a former charter school executive in a race for mayor of Newark; $185,000 to committees involved in education-related campaigns in Denver; and $100,000 to a committee supporting pro-charter candidates in a Minneapolis school board race.”

In his new book, Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, Maurice T. Cunningham traces the contributions to the campaign for Massachusetts Question 2 in 2016, an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative to lift an authorization cap on the number of new Massachusetts charter schools. Cunningham explores gifts to Great Schools Massachusetts, contributions during one sixty-day reporting period: “The report appeared to show that most of the money it raised was coming from out of state including $250,000 from Texan John Arnold and $240,000 from New Yorker Michael Bloomberg.” (Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, p. 26)

What does all this history say about Michael Bloomberg’s planned new investment in the expansion of charter schools? It says that Bloomberg has long made the expansion of privately operated charter schools at public expense one of his primary political causes.  Remember:  Bloomberg plans to invest $750 million to start up these schools. Like all charter schools, once they are started up, their operation will be at public expense—from state tax dollars and local school funding diverted from the public school districts where they are located.

It is important to remember the warning of Gordon Lafer, who studied the annual $57 million cost to the Oakland Unified School District of the operation of the charter schools within the district’s boundaries:  “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”