Biden Extends Moratorium on Student Debt Collection; Dept. of Ed. Staff Expose DeVos Policies that Favor For-Profit College Sector

The Biden Department of Education has already begun taking action on higher education policy.

On Student Loan Debt Collection

First, there is positive news for student loan borrowers. As one of his first-day—January 20, 2021—executive orders, President Joseph Biden extended former President Trump’s moratorium on demanding federal student loan repayments through September 30, 2021.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports: “Following a request from President Biden, the Education Department said Wednesday it would extend the suspension of federal student loan payments through Sept. 30. The move arrives days before the moratorium is set to expire at the end of this month.  It makes good on Biden’s pledge to give borrowers some breathing room as the economy struggles to find its footing…  (T)he acting secretary of education said the agency would extend the pause on federal student loan payments and collections and keep the interest rate at 0 percent… With the extension, all borrowers with student loans from the Education Department will see their payments automatically suspended until Sept. 30 without penalty or accrual of interest. Each month until then will still count toward loan forgiveness for borrowers in public-service jobs. It will also count toward student loan rehabilitation, a federal program that erases a default from a person’s credit report after nine consecutive payments.”

Biden’s executive action extending the moratorium on student loan debt collection applies only to government loans but not to the private companies that make loans to student borrowers. In a follow-up report, Douglas-Gabriel explains the differences in the debt-collection procedures of the Department and the private lenders: “Private companies don’t have the power of the federal government to seize tax refunds, wages and Social Security benefits to repay defaulted debt.  Instead, they must file a lawsuit and get a court judgement. Lenders and creditors, if successful in court, can then garnish a person’s wages or seize their assets.” These companies undertake court action, and many are continuing to do so despite the economic recession caused by the pandemic. Douglas-Gabriel quotes a Maryland state legislator, explaining that borrowers in the private student-loan sector tend to be students whose economic situation is particularly fragile: “Borrowers only take out private student loans as a last resort when their federal options are gone… They are among the most economically vulnerable students in higher education and have very few protections.”

Department Staff Confront the Ways Education Secretary DeVos Favored For-Profit Colleges and Trade Schools at the Expense of Their Students

Education Department’s OIG Investigates Diane Auer Jones

The U.S. Department of Education has the enormous responsibility to regulate the large for-profit sector of colleges and trade schools. Betsy DeVos, however, has repeatedly favored for-profit higher education institutions themselves at the expense of their vulnerable students who have in too many cases been saddled with enormous debt and a worthless degree.

The Department of Education has considerable leverage over the for-profit higher education sector, because these institutions depend for their very existence on federal grants and loans.  In her book on the politics of higher education, Degrees of Inequality, Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler explains: “Notably, these institutions, with only one exception, earned between 60.8 and 85.9 percent of their total revenues in 2010 from Title IV of the Higher Education Act, meaning predominantly student loans and Pell grants… Most received an additional 2 to 5 percent from military educational programs, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The sum of these federal government funds added up, as a portion of all revenues collected, to a minimum of 65.8 percent for ITT and a maximum of 93.7 percent for Bridgepoint. In short, the for-profit schools are almost entirely subsidized by government.” (Degrees of Inequality, p. 168)

Now, even before Michael Cardona, Biden’s choice for Education Secretary, is confirmed, news is emerging about serious concerns from inside the Department about the DeVos department’s favoring for-profit colleges. Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports on a leaked preliminary investigation from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General of Diane Auer Jones, who is accused of “taking actions that ‘were outside the authority’ granted to her as the principal deputy undersecretary of education.” Stratford explains: “A top adviser to former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos exceeded her authority when she helped struggling for-profit colleges access hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money… A 10-page summary of the findings obtained by POLITICO describes failures in how the Trump administration approved and oversaw business deals involving three for-profit college chains. They operated dozens of campuses across the country under the brands Argosy University, South University and the Art Institutes. The years long saga over the purchase of the schools by Dream Center Educational Holdings, and their subsequent collapse, has already produced a slew of legal fights… The preliminary findings criticize the Trump administration over how it initially approved the deal and failed to impose tighter oversight on the colleges despite the ‘significance’ of the risks to students and taxpayers, including the fact that the new Dream Center owners had no experience in higher education. The inspector general found that department officials, sometimes in unprecedented actions, allowed millions of dollars to flow to the colleges—even as many of the campuses descended into further financial distress and ran into accreditation problems.”

Stratford continues: “The inspector general’s preliminary report describes how Jones negotiated and helped orchestrate the swift sale of four recently acquired Dream Center schools to yet another owner, the Education Principle Foundation. It says that Jones ‘negotiated and agreed to the conditions’ under which those colleges could continue to receive federal student loans and Pell Grants. The result, according to the preliminary report, was that the Education Department allowed four colleges to receive more than $200 million over a nine-month period in 2019 even though those institutions ‘should have been deemed ineligible’ for federal student aid during that time… The Trump administration’s handling of the Dream Center situation came as part of a broader push by the DeVos-led Education Department to deregulate the for-profit college industry.”

Back in June of 2019, the NY Times Erica Green profiled Diane Auer Jones, who served in the Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration and subsequently worked as a lobbyist against regulation of  the for-profit higher education sector. In mid-2019,, Green described Jones’ work in the DeVos Department of Education: “Now, as the chief architect of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s higher education agenda, Ms. Jones is leading the charge to overhaul the accreditation system, and, to critics, revive the fortunes of for-profit organizations that operate low-quality education programs… The fact that Ms. Jones went on to work for some of those institutions after she resigned (from the Bush administration) has made her perhaps the most controversial appointee at the Education Department.”

Education Department Staffers Demand Severing of Ties to Controversial College Accrediting Agency

Late on Friday, only two days after President Biden was inaugurated, the Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reported that career staffers are demanding the termination of the Department’s ties to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which is known to have accredited shady for-profit trade schools and colleges:

“A controversial accreditation agency backed by former education secretary Betsy DVos may soon be stripped of its power to act as the gatekeeper for billions of dollars of federal financial aid.  Career staffers at the Education Department are recommending that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, lose the federal recognition needed to operate. In a report made public Friday, staffers concluded that the oversight body, which mostly accredits for-profit colleges, had failed to meet federal standards… An independent advisory board will take the recommendation into consideration when it convenes next month to decide the council’s fate… If the advisory board votes that the government should withdraw its recognition, the accrediting agency can appeal to the education secretary. If the secretary adopts the recommendation to terminate the agency, about 73 schools will have 18 months to find a new accreditation agency to continue receiving federal financial aid.”

Douglas-Gabriel quotes Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the chairman of the House Education Committee, commenting of the significance of Friday’s recommendation by Department of Education staff to terminate ties with ACICS: “When predatory institutions are given the legitimacy of accreditation, they use it to collect billions of dollars in federal student aid while denying students the education they deserve.”

President Biden’s Proposed Economic Stimulus Plan Would Help Public Schools and Begin to Alleviate Child Poverty

President Joe Biden has proposed a new pandemic relief package, his “American Rescue Plan,” which includes essential support for public education.

For the clearest overall summary of Biden’s new COVID-19 relief plan, please read the two page statement from Sharon Parrott, the new president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Parrott explains that Biden’s relief proposal addresses the needs of individual workers and families and finally begins to relieve the budget pressures on states, tribal governments and cities resulting from the pandemic-caused economic recession.  You will notice that Parrott pays particular attention to the ways Biden’s plan addresses the needs of America’s poorest children. Here is a very quick extract:

“President… Biden’s emergency relief proposal is a substantial, responsible plan that would significantly reduce the hardship that millions of people across the country are now facing… The President’s proposal would extend a series of important relief measures…. expanded unemployment benefits for millions… the federal moratorium on evictions….  additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program…. (and) the recently enacted increase in SNAP benefits…. Rates of food hardship are particularly high among children.”  President Biden’s plan also temporarily expands the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which would help millions of low-income families with children and workers without minor children at home make ends meet…. The proposal would increase the amount of the Child Tax Credit and make the full credit available to the 27 million children who currently don’t get the full credit (or in some cases, any credit at all) because their incomes are too low… The plan calls for substantial additional child care funding, to supplement the funds provided in the year-end relief package. This funding could help child care providers cope with reduced enrollment due to the pandemic and with increased costs to keep children and staff safe.  It also could provide needed help to families to afford child care as more people are able to return to work.” “The proposal includes much-needed state and local government fiscal relief, including funds specifically to support schools and public colleges, funding to hire more local public health workers, and aid to help states and localities avoid laying off more people. Already, 1.4 state and local workers have lost their jobs since February.”

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit explains that a smaller $900 billion relief package—passed in late December by Congress and signed by former President Trump—allocated $54 billion in assistance for public schools that have struggled to reopen as COVID-19 has ebbed and surged from region to region across the United States: “The nation’s public schools, which collectively serve more than 50 million schoolchildren, are set to get about $54 billion in coronavirus aid, funding that will help them cover steeply escalating costs for paying for personal protective equipment, building renovations and for technology needed to educate children remotely… Schools have been waiting for a funding boost for months.  In the first coronavirus package (the CARES Act), passed shortly after schools shut down in March, lawmakers allocated $13 billion for schools. They have not received any additional funding since.”

Education Week‘s Evie Bladd describes how President Biden’s new proposal would add to the extremely minimal $54 billion relief for public schools Congress passed in December. Biden focuses first on helping public schools reopen with adjustments to make schools safe for students and for teachers and staff: “President… Joe Biden is calling for $130 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, ramped up testing efforts, and accelerated vaccine distribution strategies to help reopen ‘the majority of K-8 schools’ within the first 100 days of his administration…  The education relief funding in Biden’s proposal could be used for a wide range of purposes, including hiring additional staff to reduce class sizes, modifying spaces to allow for more social distancing, improving ventilation systems, providing school nurses for schools that don’t have them, building up remote learning resources, and providing additional academic and social-emotional supports for students when they return to the classroom.”

When, in December, Congress passed the $900 billion relief bill, Senate Republicans insisted the package be lower than $1 trillion, and cut out assistance for state and local governments in order to pass the bill.  Bladd explains that Biden’s new plan finally proposes to allocate $350 billion in aid to state and local governments. Back in the spring when the House passed the HEROES Act, the bill included $915 in direct relief for state, local and tribal governments in anticipation of state budget drops due to a COVID-19 recession. But the HEROES Act was never taken up by the U.S. Senate, where Republican leaders resisted passing assistance for state governments through the end of the Congressional session. Weakness in the economy this winter as the number of COVID-19 cases has grown alarmingly threatens significantly to reduce the tax revenues on which state governments depend.  The inclusion of $350 billion for state and local governments in Biden’s plan is far less than what was contained in the HEROES Act, but important for public education nonetheless, because state governments are responsible for over 45 percent of all public school funding.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges Congress to enact Biden’s plan: “The narrow Democratic margin in Congress means that the most ambitious progressive goals will have to be put on hold. But the rescue package Biden unveiled… already indicates he won’t exhibit the excessive caution that inhibited President Barack Obama’s response to economic crisis… Biden is seeking… (a) major relief package, including a new effort to reduce child poverty, and he may soon move to make the A.C.A. more generous and cover more people.  He should push hard on both fronts: recent experience shows that smart government spending can do a lot to improve American lives…. (T)here is now widespread agreement among economists that debt is far less of a problem than conventional wisdom asserted… (W)hile the level of federal debt may seem high, low interest rates mean that the burden of servicing the debt is actually very low by historical standards.”

In her statement this week on Biden’s economic relief plan, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Sharon Parrot emphatically agrees: “The robust set of measures in President… Biden’s proposal would meet critical needs and is appropriate to the scale of the crisis we face. Given the current environment, the risk of providing too little economic stimulus and hardship relief far outweighs the risk of providing too much. Policymakers should not repeat the mistakes of the Great Recession, when they inflicted substantial human and economic harm on the nation by shifting to a posture of austerity that weakened the recovery….”

On This Holiday Honoring Dr. King, Consider the Plight of Children Today in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District

Today is the holiday set aside for reflection on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Peter Greene’s new history of the ruination of Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland Public Schools, published last week in Forbes, ought to be required reading on this holiday to remind us how badly our society has stumbled along the journey for justice for America’s poorest African American children.

On Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as U.S. President.  Look for a new post on Friday, January 22.

Greene explains: “As the new year begins, one Pennsylvania public school district faces the prospect of being completely dismantled and handed over to charter operators. Chester Upland School District is poised to become an example of what can happen to a public school district that needs assistance, and gets nothing but trouble instead.  CUSD has weathered every sort of challenge a district can face, but may now be on its last legs, about to make history as the first Pennsylvania district to be completely privatized.”

I have known about the tragedy in Chester Upland since the mid-1990s, but Greene explains how its segregated history goes back to the years before Brown, when the district educated Black and white children separately as a matter of policy. Greene reports that only after 1964 was Chester Upland ordered to desegregate, but middle class white flight followed, and “the 1960s saw an exodus of major employers like Ford Motor and Baldwin Locomotive. People and solid middle class jobs were both leaving, and the school district’s tax base was evaporating.”

Then came the so-called solution: accountability-based school reform. Chester Upland earned a D+ rating from the state at the same time its next-door neighbor, Wallingford-Swarthmore earned an A+: “By 1994, the district was named the worst-performing school in the state…. In 2000, the state declared the district financially distressed, meaning that they could be taken over by a state-appointed Board of Control.”  The state hired the for-profit Edison Schools to manage the Chester Upland District, until the corporation quit in 2005, saying they had not been fully paid and that ‘we were no longer going to be enough of an active agent for positive change.'”

A succession of state overseer boards followed, but in the meantime Vahan Gureghian opened the nonprofit, Chester Community Charter School, and the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., which then became the nonprofit’s manager. Gureghian earned so much that he built a Palm Beach mansion he later sold for $84.5 million.

Some of Gureghian’s profits came from Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment.  Greene reports that, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”

Still under state takeover and a succession of emergency management boards, the school district experienced escalating financial problems. Teachers went through periods when they agreed to work without pay to serve the students. Greene reports: “The recovery plan of December, 2019, laid out the troubles that faced the district. Since 2012, four recovery plans, four receivers, three chief recovery officers. Constant turnover in staff and faculty. The school district had ‘failed to maximize potential benefits from’ from previous plans, aka, the previous plans hadn’t worked.  100% of the student body eligible for free and reduced lunch; 89% Black, 7% Hispanic. Substantial amounts of ‘deferred maintenance’ and ‘underfunded capital improvements budgets’ were blamed for dropped enrollment.”

Greene continues: “At the same time, the three charter schools in Chester, even though they only covered grades K-8, had enrolled over half the students in the district. Chester Community Charter School has become the largest bricks-and-mortar charter school in the state… and Pennsylvania’s funding gap between rich and poor districts has continued to be one of the worst in the country.  Chester Upland has been on the losing side of all these issues, with the added impact of repeated, failed state takeovers, using a receivership model that puts the court-appointed receiver in charge with huge powers….”

Last September, administrative services in the school district were handed over to a Chester County regional authority, which reduced staff.  And a request for proposals was circulated “to outsource operation of the schools.”  Everyone must wait to see who gets the contract, but it looks as though Chester Upland will become an all-charter school district.  A big question involves the future of the still-public high school.

Greene concludes: “The death spiral occurs when charters strip resources from the public system, leaving that system further struggling, which fuels more parent departure for charters… What is the hope for Chester Upland schools? … State-mandated takeovers have been disastrously unsuccessful, and the state itself has left the district woefully underfunded (low test scores did not lead the state to target resources to aid the district).  Bad charter laws have striped them of funding they could not spare, and returned results that seem no better…. The district’s story is complicated… but the lesson is simple.  When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers.  And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfill the promise of a free public education for all of its children.”

This is the story of one Pennsylvania school district. But the story of a state experimenting with state takeovers and charter management companies and a state failing to provide help for Its poorest school districts is about more than Pennsylvania. What Greene describes is also the story of Rick Snyder’s school district emergency managers in Michigan—the story of Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Highland Park.  It is the story of the Ohio state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  It is the story of charter school expansion in Gary, Indiana. It is the New Jersey story of decades of school district takeovers in Paterson and Newark and Camden. It is the story of state governments looking for cheap, trendy ways to shed responsibility for educating the Black and Brown children in America’s poorest and most racially segregated communities.  It is also the story of charter school entrepreneurs who profit from power and political connections at the expense of poor children.

Biden’s Education Plan Addressed Lagging School Funding: Now with a Democratic Senate Majority, He Needs to Act

President Elect Joe Biden prioritized public school funding as the center of his education plan during his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President.  Why did he prioritize public school finance and why is it so urgently important in 2021?

Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, in their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, explaining the problem: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

In August of 2018, the late Jim Siegel at the Columbus Dispatch summarized an important report by Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter: “Nearly 77 percent of the total revenue increase from state funding and local taxes in the past 20 years occurred before 2009, according to a new analysis by the Ohio Education Policy Institute… State funding increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2009, but in the past 10 years it has actually fallen nearly 2 percent below inflation… Fleeter points to three key reasons why state funding slowed, starting with the great recession in 2008 and 2009, causing unprecedented drops in state tax revenue.  GOP leaders also eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out…. And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year.”

It has seemed as though there was hope for better public school support in the Ohio Statehouse. The Ohio Legislature spent the biennium that ended on December 31, 2020, working with experts to design a more adequate and equitable formula.  On December 3, 2020, the new plan passed the Ohio House by a margin of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate killed the bill by failing to schedule a vote before the end of the session. It is extremely unlikely that the plan will be reintroduced and passed in the next legislative biennium without changes that will reduce its cost and reduce its attention to the needs of Ohio’s poorest school districts.

The problem is not merely in states like Ohio with a history of long struggle to fund public education.  The executive director of New Jersey’s Education Law Center, which litigated the extremely successful legal challenge, Abbott v. Burke and ensured that New Jersey’s school funding has been a national leader, David Sciarra reports that right now New Jersey is falling behind the funding guarantee established through the lawsuit: “In 2018, upward of 196 New Jersey school districts were funded below ‘adequacy,’ that is, the level required by the state’s school funding formula to deliver a thorough and efficient education. That year, the state owed public school students close to $1.5 billion… The governor and legislators made some modest progress in 2019 and 2020, when they increased state school funding by $355 million and $191 million, respectively.  While the increase lowered the number of underfunded districts to 166, half of New Jersey’s students still attended underfunded schools, many in districts intensely segregated by poverty and race.  And the progress was short lived. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, (Governor) Murphy scrapped a planned $335 million funding increase, and lawmakers jumped on board with ‘flat’ state aid reminiscent of former Gov. Chris Christie’s consecutive state budgets from 2010 to 2017.  In short order, the state’s debt to public education is now back up to $2 billion, and lawmakers have abandoned their high-sounding rhetoric promising to close the funding gap by 2024.”

State and local school districts share over 90 percent of the responsibility for public school finance, with the federal government providing less than 10 percent. But funding even for the federal portion of public school finance has lagged.  The Committee for Education Funding provides this chart which demonstrates that while, in December of 2020, Congress appropriated a small increase for FY 2021 in U.S. Department of Education Discretionary Funding, the appropriation remains $7 billion below the FY 2011 amount in inflation adjusted dollars.

But the bigger problem remains in the states, which increasingly have reneged on their responsibility. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes what has happened in too many states in the past decade: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

In over 40 states, another problem has arisen.  The tax dollars that states once invested in the public schools have been divided up into three separate education sectors: traditional public schools, publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, and private and religious schoosl which accept tuition vouchers paid for with public tax dollars.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the school finance implications of the expansion of school privatization at public expense: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

In a groundbreaking 2018 report about California, political economist Gordon Lafer exposed the net loss of $57.3 million local school district dollars diverted from the Oakland Unified School District to charter schools every year.

Public vouchers to pay private school tuition have likewise expanded, with the financial impact too often felt in the school districts serving poor children.  In November, 2020, for example, the incoming Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman introduced and rapidly passed without public hearings a revision of Ohio’s EdChoice private school tuition voucher program. Huffman rammed through changes which make the vouchers—which are fully extracted through local school district deductions—available only to students living in Title I districts.  Wealthy districts are now protected from losing any of their school district budgets to this voucher program. Now, Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers undermine not only the adequacy of school funding, but also inequitably impact the state’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children.

The authors of both Schoolhouse Burning and The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door agree that the 2018-2019, Red4Ed teachers’ walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland to Chicago exposed the deplorable school funding conditions across many U.S. states.  In some cases, those problems were addressed as the strikes were resolved, but the danger is that state budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 business shutdowns and layoffs will reduce state budgets further in this budget year and perhaps for several years to come.

Clearly, as Candidate Joe Biden and his advisors drafted an education plan, they were aware of the school funding collapse so carefully documented in each of these new books and in press coverage from state to state. Now that Georgia’s run-off election last week has provided our incoming President with a Democratic Senate majority, advocates for children and public schools must hold President Biden to his promises.  First, Biden and Congress must immediately pass another COVID-19 relief bill that finally includes funding relief for state budgets and provides immediate help to ensure that children and their teachers are safely back to school as soon as possible. Then our new President needs to turn his education plan into a federal budget that triples funding for Title I, takes the first steps fully to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years, increases the number of wraparound Community Schools, and significantly expands enriched pre-Kindergarten for children living in poverty. Biden also needs to use federal policy to incentivize the states to provide enough funding to cover the real cost of educational services and to ensure that the school districts serving concentrations of poor children can begin to address long-standing opportunity gaps.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait Is Bragging Again About Charter Schools

Last week, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait published another of his long rants about the failure of public schools, the glories of charter schools, and all the reasons he disdains teachers unions.  Chait begins:

“In the dozen years since Barack Obama undertook the most dramatic education reform in half a century—prodding local governments to measure how they serve their poorest students and to create alternatives, especially charter schools, for those who lack decent neighborhood options—two unexpected things have happened.  The first is that charter schools have produced dramatic learning gains for low-income minority students… What was ten years ago merely an experiment has become a proven means to develop the potential of children whose minds had been neglected for generations. And yet the second outcome of the charter-school breakthrough has been a bitter backlash within the Democratic Party.  The political standing of the idea has moved in the opposite direction of the data, as two powerful forces—unions and progressive activists—have come to regard charter schools as a plutocratic assault on public education… ‘I am not a charter school fan because it takes the options available and money for public schools,’ Biden told a crowd in South Carolina during the Democratic primary, as the field competed to prove its hostility toward education reform in general and charters in particular.”

Chait is honest about his personal connection with the charter school sector—through his wife, Robin Chait, a Senior Policy Advisor at WestEd, whose website describes her work: “Chait’s primary responsibility is to manage WestEd’s work on the National Charter School Resource Center.  She also provides technical assistance and develops publications, tools, and resources for charter authorizers, state education agencies and charter management organizations.”

Jonathan Chait has been writing about the glories of charter schools for years, and— in this new article as in the past—he emphasizes his distrust of teachers unions and his aversion to tenure, which Chait believes is responsible for mediocrity or worse in the public schools: “The final element of charters’ formula is inescapably controversial.  They prioritize the welfare of their students over those of their employees, which means paying teachers based on effectiveness rather than how long they’ve been on the job—and being able to fire the worst ones… Today, teachers unions have adopted a militant defense of the tenure prerogatives of their least effective members, equating that stance with a defense of the teaching profession as a whole.”

Six years ago, the chair of the education department at Seton Hall University, Dr. Daniel Katz published a scathing critique of another of Chait’s rants at New York Magazine.  Katz’s critique precisely captures the problems in Chait’s new rant: “He doesn’t examine how the ‘accountability’ measures favored by reformers come from statistical models that are not accepted as valid measures of teachers’ impact on student learning.  He doesn’t look at the impact on students, teachers and schools of the constant drive for more testing of students, nor does he look at the corporations that are eager to monetize the results of those tests.  He does not consider the ways in which the rich and influential have used charter school expansion to line their own investment portfolios, nor does he consider the corrupting influence on Democratic politicians of hedge fund manager created political action committees that use campaign donations to ensure charter schools keep expanding. He does not examine that many charter school ‘successes’ come at the expense of their appalling attrition rates, nor does he reference the new reports of widespread fraud and abuse of public money in the rapidly growing and poorly regulated charter sector.  He mentions the Vergara decision in California and opines that it ’embarrasses’ teacher unions by highlighting the ‘least-defensible aspect of their agenda and its most sympathetic victims,’ but he does not mention the extremely questionable research that was used to support the case, nor does he mention that the victims in question could not name a single teacher who was ‘grossly ineffective’… Jonathan Chait is an experienced journalist and editor. He had it entirely within his power to write an interesting piece on the potential of a rift between Democrats and one of their traditionally reliable constituencies, and to examine, fairly, the different sides of the issues. Instead, he took it as a given that charter schools are successful alternatives and only union absolutists have any qualms about accountability and tenure reforms.”  (For citations, please see Katz’s original post.  His citations are embedded in his own report but would not copy into this post.)

The Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education, Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig castigates Chait’s new article.  Vasquez Heilig provides links to peer-reviewed educational research to dispute Chait’s arguments:  “Charter schools do not deliver extraordinary results—in fact on average their results are quite limited. Contrary to Chait’s argument, as an academic I can assuredly tell you that ‘education researchers’ HAVE NOT been shocked by charter school gains—I think unimpressed is probably a better word.  Check out this extensive list of more than 30 National Education Policy Center ‘top experts’ whose peer reviewed research findings are largely contrary to Chait’s grandiose claims about school choice.”

Vasquez Heilig questions Chait’s arguments about charter schools’ admissions and push-out policies—policies Vasquez Heilig believes skew the data Chait cites to prove charter schools’ academic superiority: “Charter school admissions and student retention is not as simple as ‘lotteries’ and ‘voting with your feet.’ Thus due to widespread access and inclusion issues, charters are NOT a perfect laboratory for research…  While students may enter charters via lottery, student attrition is an extensive problem for charter schools. For example, we conducted an analysis of state data and published the work as a peer reviewed study in the Berkeley Review of Education. We found that approximately 40% of Black students left KIPP before graduation and identified a similar problem in other independent and network charters.”  “It is well known in the peer reviewed research literature that ‘no excuses’ charter schools serially crop and suspend students of color which creates a creamed population of students. Scholars of color such as Laura Hernández (Learning Policy Institute), Janelle Scott (University of Pennsylvania), Terrenda White (University of Colorado), Kevin Lawrence Henry (University of Wisconsin), Chris Torres (Michigan State University), Joanne Golann (Vanderbilt University), and Chezare Warren (Vanderbilt University) have extensively studied the ‘carceral’ practices, pedagogies and experiences of parents/students of color in no excuses charters…. A quick Google search of any of these scholars will reveal their important and critical work about charter access and inclusion (and) the incorrect framing of the issue by Chait.”

Vasquez Heilig corrects Chait’s allegation that teachers unions are the primary opponent of charter schools: “Another common argument from Chait is that the teachers’ unions are the primary opponents of market-based school choice. But union leadership has been historically sidelined on charters because of an apparent strategy to organize charter schools.”  So… who is supporting charter schools? “What Chait didn’t discuss is where the money is coming from to support charter school advocacy. Betsy DeVos is the most influential supporter and now probably the easiest proponent to identify. However, a peer reviewed article with Jameson Brewer (University of North Georgia) and Frank Adamson (California State University Sacramento) extensively documented that in the shadows is hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools from foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform— and many, many other Astroturf organizations at the local level—have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice.”

Here are three other primary problems with charter schools that Chait neglects to consider.

First:     Research widely demonstrates that charter schools rarely serve the same student populations as their traditional public school counterparts.  Research by Mark Weber and Julia Sass Rubin at Rutgers University demonstrates, for example, that: “New Jersey charter schools continue to enroll proportionally fewer special education and Limited English Proficient students than their sending district public schools. The special education students enrolled in charter schools tend to have less costly disabilities compared to special education students in the district public schools…  (D)ata…  show that many charter schools continue to enroll fewer at-risk students than their sending district public schools.”  Public schools in New Jersey and other states are left with concentrations of students with high needs for expensive services.

Second:     In last year’s Asleep at the Wheel reports (here and here), the Network for Public Education condemned the waste of billions of federal Charter Schools Program dollars on schools that never opened or subsequently shut down, many times mid-year without warning. These reports document failed oversight of charter schools not only by the federal government which provides start-up dollars but also by the states under whose governments charters are authorized.  In his new article, Chait explains the theory behind the charter school marketplace where competition is supposed to ensure that the best schools survive and the weakest schools shut down. Chait admits that parents—who often have too little real information to correct for fancy advertising—cannot be sure to discern school quality, but he argues that, “Education researchers have found that what has worked, instead, is an enhanced role for entities known as charter authorizers—the official public agencies that decide which charter schools are allowed to open and which ones are forced to close.”  Here are some examples from Ohio, however, which ought to undermine Chait’s faith in charter school authorizers.  I remember when the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, the body charged with managing Cleveland’s portfolio school plan, tried to ban the Cincinnati St. Aloysius Orphanage from authorizing charter schools in Cleveland.  St Aloysius Orphanage was known to provide little oversight of the charter schools it had authorized and was thought by the board of the Transformation Alliance to have failed in its role as authorizer.  But the Ohio Legislature, to whom the Transformation Alliance reports, prevented the Transformation Alliance from firing St. Aloysius Orphanage as a charter authorizer in Cleveland.  Or, there is the 17 year history of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Its authorizer, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, did not pull its charter until it had been repeatedly proven that the school had been overpaid nearly $200 million by the state of Ohio for masses of students who had not been attending the school.

Third:     Charter schools, which very often are given the power by their states and authorizers to open anywhere they can find a building, are sucking essential budget dollars out of the public school districts where they are located. The most definitive research was conducted by political economist Gordon Lafer in California’s Oakland Unified School District, but Lafer’s conclusions apply across the more than forty states which permit charter schools. Lafer documented that the Oakland Unified School District loses a net amount of $57.3 million each year to the charter schools located within its 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.” “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.”

Washington Post Joins NY Times to Demand Reinstatement of Standardized Tests in Schools this Spring: It Is Still a Bad Idea

On Friday, the Washington Post editorialized to demand the reinstatement—this spring in the midst of COVID-19—of the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeed Act. Betsy DeVos mercifully cancelled the testing mandate last spring as the pandemic hit.

On Friday, this blog critiqued a similar January 2nd, editorial from the NY Times‘ editors, who demanded that the new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reinstate the annual annual standardized testing regime.

The reasoning of the Post‘s editorial is flawed, and the realities for teachers, families and children make the federally mandated state testing ridiculous this spring.  The Post‘s editors wonder: “How can schools create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if those losses haven’t been measured? Wouldn’t knowing which students have been most adversely affected be helpful in directing resources for mitigation efforts? Don’t parents have a right to know whether their sons and daughters are achieving?”

The Post would appear to trust big data and distrust educational professionals.  As soon as schools can be opened in person, professionally educated and prepared teachers and public school staff will be assessing what students need, adapting curricula accordingly, and helping parents support their children’s learning. Teachers have been doing their best throughout this school year to meet children’s and parents’ needs, although the disruption of switching back and forth from online to in-person to on-line learning as COVID-19 infections have surged and abated and surged has made the year chaotic for families and for educators.

As experts quoted on Friday in this blog point out, the state-by-state standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act were created as a tool for school accountability; these tests have never been effective for informing classroom practice. The results are not accessible to school teachers for months after the tests are administered.  On Friday, this blog quoted Diane Ravitch explaining that these tests will not assist teachers who are trying to support children as they return to the stable, in-class instruction we anticipate as soon as vaccines are widely available and schools reopen: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test.”

Professor of research and evaluation methodology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Lorrie Shepard warns: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic.  Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Shepard flatly rejects a primary argument of the Post‘s and the Times’ editors: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.  At the state level, there may not be new monies to allocate because of budget cuts.”

Lack of money to support reopening schools and to enhance ongoing programming and even prevent staffing reductions as the COVID-19 recession deepens has been a worry all year among education professionals.  Without COVID relief for state and local governments, it is feared states will be forced to cut their education budgets in the next couple of years—state budgets which cover over 45 percent of all school funding on average.

President Elect Biden is already well aware of alarming educational inequity. Biden has pledged immediately to support another COVID-19 relief bill that would, with the new Democratic Senate majority, presumably include assistance for state and local governments. Biden has also pledged to invest federal dollars through tripling Title I and other investments for equity.  Biden campaigned on on a promise to increase investment in the public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated:  “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Injustice in American public education has been defined for generations by what Jonathan Kozol in 1991 described as Savage Inequalities in investment between wealthy and poor school districts.  Programs like the federal Title I program for compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children as well the states’ school funding distribution formulas are intended, despite their inadequacy, to invest federal and state dollars in the school districts lacking local property taxing capacity.  Inequities will persist until our society finds a way, in the poorest school districts, to invest in pre-Kindergarten and wraparound Community Schools; small classes; plenty of counselors, nurses and librarians; and the kind of curricular enrichment children in wealthy exurbs take for granted.

This COVID-19 year is an excellent time for the federal government to invest in educational equity and to incentivize states to increase their investments in the poorest school districts. It is a bad time to relaunch the failed high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

New Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Should Not Require Annual Standardized Testing in This COVID-19 School Year

Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.

But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:

“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”

That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.

It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable.  First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas.  Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”

Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”

Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology  at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.

Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

What Do We Know about Our Next Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona?,

Today Congress will meet to certify the electoral college vote and confirm Joe Biden as our next president. Biden’s election guarantees Betsy DeVos’s exit as Secretary of Education.

It looks as though, by nominating Dr. Miguel Cardona, currently Connecticut’s state Commissioner of Education, President-Elect Biden has fulfilled the prediction of satirist Andy Borowitz (in his funniest Borowitz Report for the year): “Betsy DeVos warns that Biden will pick Education Secretary with background in education… ‘In order to be impartial toward education, an Education Secretary must be as ignorant as possible,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean to boast, but I am going to be a tough act to follow in that respect.'”

Dr. Cardona is definitely someone with a strong background in public education. He has devoted his career to serving public schools. In his acceptance remarks, Cardona describes his life work: “I was blessed to attend public schools in my hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, where I was able to expand my horizons, become the first in my family to graduate college, and become a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in the same community that gave me so much. That is the power of America—in two generations. And I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.”

For Inside Higher Education, Kery Murakami describes Cardona’s credentials: “Cardona’s background is primarily in elementary and secondary education. In 2003, Cardona, then 28, was the youngest principal in the state when he became head of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Conn… After becoming an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Meriden Public Schools in 2013, he rose quickly in the state system, becoming head of the state’s K-12 schools just last summer. As a student, he attended Meriden Public Schools and graduated from Wilcox Technical High School.  Cardona attended Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Connecticut, where he completed his master’s degree in bilingual/bicultural education and his doctorate in education.”

The Washington Post‘s education reporters explore Cardona’s recent work as Connecticut’s top education leader: “In Connecticut’s top job, much of Cardona’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic.  After schools closed, he worked to procure devices for students who need them to participate in remote schooling and pushed to reopen buildings… That record dovetails with Biden’s focus on trying to get schools reopened.  He has called on districts to resume in-person teaching within his first 100 days in office. The new education secretary’s first task will be to help guide schools through the final phase of the pandemic. Cardona has also focused his attention on education issues and voiced concern that the pandemic was exacerbating inequities among students. Under his tenure, Connecticut became the first state to require high schools to offer courses on Black and Latino studies. Earlier, he served as co-chairman of a state task force examining achievement gaps.”

Despite Cardona’s strengths as a public school educator and as a person who understands the challenges for teachers and school leaders from inside the operation of schools, people who know federal policy in education share some concern about his lack of experience in the policy wars that have swirled around education since the 2002 passage of No Child Left Behind, when standardized, test-based school accountability imposed punishments on schools unable quickly to raise standardized test scores. Business accountability based on incentives and sanctions was the operating mechanism of No Child Left Behind and later of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top, with punishments for so-called “failing” schools ranging from firing the principal and part of the teaching staff, charterizing the school, or closing the school altogether. Duncan punished teachers as well; they were to be evaluated according to their students’ standardized test scores under a plan that was eventually slammed by the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association as invalid and unreliable.

Contrary to the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy, decades of educational research demonstrate that lagging standardized test scores reflect widespread opportunity gaps in children’s lives—in school and outside school—and are a flawed measuring stick for the quality of a public school.  This research predicts that schools in America’s poorest communities are likely to post the lowest aggregate test scores, with schools in wealthy suburban pockets of privilege likely to post the highest scores.

All the evidence points to the need for federal help to alleviate childhood poverty and investment in the public schools in poor communities—precisely the kind of policies Candidate Joe Biden prescribed in his Education Plan: triple Title I funding; fully fund the IDEA in ten years; increase the number of full service, wraparound Community Schools; expand access to enriched pre-Kindergarten; and incentivize states to more adequately and equitably fund their public schools. The question is whether Dr. Cardona will fully implement the very positive pro-public education policy agenda that President-Elect Joe Biden has proclaimed.

Education policy is at a crossroads where policy makers must choose one road or the other: toward punitive policy involving high stakes testing and increased privatization or toward significant assistance for the public schools serving concentrations of students living in urban or rural poverty.  For two decades Democrats have tried to join with Republicans to locate a third way—a middle path that seems to accommodate both sides.  It hasn’t worked: test scores themselves haven’t budged, and achievement gaps have not narrowed. Biden has now pledged to turn away from test-and-punish and help the public schools most in need of federal investment.  But people worry that Cardona may lack experience in the fraught context of federal policy. Can he avoid being lured down the wrong road or into a supposed shortcut? Will he have enough experience not to get trapped in the thickets of the policy landscape.  Will he be able to see far enough ahead to realize he may be taking a road that winds right back to the old test-and-punish starting point?

Will Cardona Compromise On High-Stakes Standardized Testing?

In the two decades under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been required to administer standardized tests to students every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, to aggregate the scores, and then to use the tests as the basis for rewards or sanctions. The high-stakes punishments for so-called “failing” schools  have included the use of aggregate students’ test scores to judge and rate and rank the school or school district, to “turnaround” the school through charterization or school closure, to fire staff or impose punishments if scores don’t rise quickly, and to impose state takeover with appointed overseer accountability boards.

During the presidential campaign, Biden distanced himself from standardized testing and rejected the high stakes as well. Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains that, “Biden was skeptical of standardized tests on the campaign trail.  Working in cooperation with his campaign, the Democratic Party included language critical of ‘high stakes’ use of test scores in its 2020 platform.  Some education policy wonks who supported President Barack Obama’s approach to school accountability said Biden put too much emphasis on school funding and not enough on accountability.”  Blad examines Cardona’s record: “In general Cardona hasn’t been a strident critic of standardized testing like some of Biden’s other reported candidates for education secretary, but has emphasized the appropriate use of test scores.  Serving on a state advisory panel that assisted in the design of teacher-evaluation policies as a district administrator, he stressed the importance of multiple measures of success.”

Diane Ravitch writes: “Dr. Cardona has not taken a position on the major issues that define the… education policy battles of the past two decades.  He has been critical of excessive testing but does not oppose the use of standardized testing on principle.  He has been critical of test-based evaluation of teachers (using students’ scores to rate their teachers)—a major element of Race to the Top—because he knows that it doesn’t work.”

Will Cardona Compromise On Charter Schools?

Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains: “Cardona hasn’t taken a strong position for or against charter schools.  His state education department has renewed charter school plans, but it has not approved any new ones since he was appointed in August 2019…”  Blad quotes Cardona: “Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option, but neighborhood schools that’s going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the (Connecticut) agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner.”

Shawgi Tell, a Rochester NY professor of education who blogs at Dissident Voice, quotes Nina Rees, CEO of he National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who seems to hope that Cardona will not abandon charter schools: “We call upon him to place students and families first and to be agnostic about Pre K-12 instructional delivery and governance models… The Secretary must be committed to supporting the entire public school ecosystem….”

Tell also quotes Andy Rotherham, founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, which identifies itself as “supporting innovation” in education. Rotherham describes Cardona as, “a Goldilocks on charter schools—not too hot or cold. He didn’t champion opening new ones, but has renewed existing ones while he was commissioner. Charter leaders have nice things to say about him even as he states that his focus is district-run schools.”

Diane Ravitch comments: “He is neither for nor against charter schools, even though Connecticut experienced some of the worst charter scandals in the nation (think the Jumoke charter chain), is the home base of the Sackler-funded ConnCAN (which morphed into 50CAN, to spread the privatization movement nationally), and is the home base of Achievement First, one of the premier no-excuses charter chains, known in the past for harsh discipline (three in the AF chain are currently on probation, despite their high test sores). The fact that three of the politically powerful AF no-excuses charters are on probation is a hopeful sign that he intends to hold charters to the same standards as public schools.”

We’ll Have to Watch and Evaluate.

The Network for Public Education comments on President-Elect Biden’s nomination of Dr. Cardona for Education Secretary: “Dr. Cardona is the product of neighborhood public schools. He sends his children to public schools. His life’s work has been immersed in public schools. He did not attend the Broad Academy nor become a Jeb Bush Chief for Change. He has never claimed that three great teachers in a row will cure poverty, nor has he ever said that charter schools are the answer.”

Diane Ravitch adds: “I am still hoping for a Secretary who recognizes that the past twenty years have been a nightmare for American public schools, their students, and their teachers. I am still hoping for someone who will publicly admit that federal education policy has been a disaster since No Child Left Behind and its kissing cousin Race to the Top, modified slightly by the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Maybe Dr. Cardona will be that person.  We will see.”

Montana’s Senator Jon Tester Says Democrats Can Win in Red States By Prioritizing Public Education

In mid-December, the NY TimesJonathan Martin interviewed Montana Senator Jon Tester about his new book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America. Tester, a Democrat and U.S. Senator in his third term, represents a deep red state.

Tester tells Martin: “Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.”

Although I now live in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up in in Havre, Montana, 35 miles up the road from Tester’s farm just outside of Big Sandy.  As I read that NY Times interview, I was particularly interested in Tester’s statement about the threat school privatization poses in rural communities, which is why I was surprised and delighted to find a copy of Tester’s book wrapped up for me under the Christmas tree.

Many hope President Joe Biden’s administration will significantly reshape federal education policy. During last year’s campaign for President, Biden, the candidate, declared a public education agenda that contrasts sharply with what happened to federal policy in public education beginning in the 1990s and culminating in the 2002 No Child Left Behind and later in 2009 in Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire describe the past couple of decades: “Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools.  And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers….”

Now with Biden’s election, many are looking for a turn by prominent Democrats back to the urgent needs of the public schools as a new COVID-19 recession compounds funding problems lingering in state budgets from the Great Recession a dozen years ago and as school privatization through charter school expansion and vouchers continues to thrust public schools deeper into fiscal crisis. Senator Jon Tester believes Democrats can rebuild support in rural America by attending to the needs of rural public education.

Tester’s new book folds policy ideas into memoir, with the back story a tribute to small town public schooling.  An indifferent high school student, Tester was encouraged by a debate coach, “who taught me how to articulate political arguments” and “taught us how to structure speeches to build an arc of suspense. He taught us the importance of clarity and simple language.”  Tester was elected student body president at Big Sandy High School: “For Government Day, on behalf of Big Sandy’s students, I invited one of our area’s most familiar elected leaders to visit with us about his long career in public service… Senator James was a tall, soft-spoken old farmer who accepted my invitation graciously and visited with us Big Sandy students for the better part of a day. He made the art and war of state politics sound fun.”

A trumpet player and college music major, Tester taught elementary school music at F.E. Miley Elementary School but was forced to resign when the paltry salary, even on top of what he could earn from farming, made it impossible for his family to get by. Tester ran for the local board of education and served for nearly a decade, including stints as vice chair and chair: “To this day, I’m asked about my most difficult job in politics. Without a doubt, my answer is the nine years I spent on the Big Sandy school board; it seemed everyone had strong opinions about public school policies, disciplinary actions, money, pay, taxes, ethics, graduations, grades, teacher performance, coaches, bullies, scholarships—it was a nine-year roller-coaster ride, and I loved every twist and turn.”

Tester ran for the Montana state senate, serving eventually as Senate President in the years when the state legislature enacted school funding reform: “Though we had already tackled school funding earlier in the year to satisfy the 2004 mandate from the Montana Supreme Court, the legislature still needed to pass a more permanent funding plan.  And with power and speed, we did. In only two days, with a clear vision and a smart, organized plan, the Democratic-controlled Montana Legislature passed a much-needed 10.6 percent increase in public education funding, over the loud objections of the Republicans.”

How did these years of experience prepare Tester to confront public education policy in the U.S. Senate?

Here is Tester describing his personal interview with Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos:  “DeVos said it (public education) was failing, and that her solution would be to pull successful kids out of failing public schools and give them vouchers to attend private schools.” Later opposing her appointment, Tester told the Senate: “‘If we …(privatize the schools)  I am here to tell the people of the Senate today that we will destroy the foundation of this country and we will destroy—it will take a few years—we will destroy our democracy.’… I told my Senate colleagues how my Swedish-born grandmother Christine Pearson made sure her four kids understood the transformative value of public education, and how my mother, also a former teacher, passed that value down to me. I said I had to quit teaching in the late seventies because I could make more money on one Saturday butchering meat than an entire week of teaching music at my tiny hometown elementary school.”

What about charter schools? “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization.  My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.”

What about the racial and ethnic intolerance fanned for four years by President Trump? Tester believes that public schools are a setting for confronting intolerance: “Rural America often refuses to examine the impacts of racism and the privilege that people like my homesteader grandparents benefited from while the first Americans here were pushed away. Montana’s (1972) Constitution mandates a program called Indian Education for All to ensure that all public school kids learn the accurate history of indigenous people. But we’ve got a hell of a lot more work to do to better understand one another, so that all communities can prosper without having to fear other communities, without having to push them down…  Without our nation having built a foundation of respect and understanding through education, a populist like Donald Trump can easily convince rural America that the status quo in politics isn’t working, and others are to blame….”

Tester—a  Democrat who supports the Affordable Care Act, gay rights, and the Manchin-Toomey gun background check amendment; who opposes Citizens United and opposed the 2017 tax cuts for the rich; and who killed President Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ronny Jackson as Director of Veterans Affairs— is serving a third term as a U.S. Senator representing deep red Montana.

Character and authenticity are Tester’s code. But there are also the core issues: “I’ve won each of my elections because I gave voters a reason. Good public education. Quality, affordable health care. Accountability. Freedom. Montana’s way of life. Those are things that everyone can relate to, regardless of political party.”  He adds: “Democrats need to understand that we cannot give up on rural America… (W)e have no choice but to reach out and bring all of America along.”

EXTRA: Biden Appoints Dr. Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary

This is a reblog of Diane Ravitch’s commentary on President Elect Joseph Biden’s appointment of Dr. Miguel Cardona as the next Secretary of Education.

Biden Picks Connecticut Commissioner Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education

by dianeravitch

President-Elect Joe Biden selected Dr. Miguel Cardona, Commissioner of Education in Connecticut, to be his administration’s Secretary of Education.

The Washington Post wrote about him:

President-elect Joe Biden is set to nominate the commissioner of public schools in Connecticut as his education secretary, settling on a low-profile candidate who has pushed to reopen schools and is not aligned with either side in education policy battles of recent years, two people familiar with the matter said Monday.

Miguel Cardona was named Connecticut’s top schools official last year and if confirmed will have achieved a meteoric rise, moving from an assistant superintendent in Meriden, Conn., a district with 9,000 students, to secretary of education in less than two years.

He was born in Meriden to Puerto Rican parents who lived in public housing. He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher and rocketed up the ranks, becoming the state’s youngest principal at age 28. He was named the state’s principal of the year in 2012...

A finalist for the job was Leslie Fenwick, former dean of the Howard University School of Education and a fierce critic of education policies such as test-based accountability for schools and teachers who have been popular with centrists in both political parties.

Cardona represented a safer selection. He does not appear to have been a combatant in those education wars, though he did challenge teachers unions as he worked to reopen schools this fall.

Democrats who support accountability-type education changes, concerned that Fenwick would get the job, lobbied for Cardona, and although he is not a leader from their faction, his selection marks a win for them. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also endorsed him in recent days.

So this much is clear. Biden rejected the progressive candidate, Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick. However, Dr. Cardona is not a Broadie, not a DFER favorite, not a member of Jeb Bush’s “Chiefs for Change.” All of this is good news. We know that these fake “reformers” lobbied hard for one of their own. They lost. That’s good news too.

Dr. Cardona has not taken a position on the major issues that define the major education policy battles of the past two decades. He has been critical of excessive testing, but does not oppose the use of standardized testing on principle. He has been critical of test-based evaluation of teachers (a major element of Race to the Top), because he knows that it doesn’t work. He is neither for nor against charter schools, even though Connecticut experienced some of the worst charter scandals in the nation (think the Jumoke charter chain), is the home base of the Sackler-funded ConnCAN (which morphed into 50CAN, to spread the privatization movement nationally), and is the home base of Achievement First, one of the premier no-excuses charter chain, known in the past for harsh discipline (three in the AF chain are currently on probation, despite their high test scores). The fact that three of the politically powerful AF no-excuses charters are on probation is a hopeful sign that he intends to hold charters to the same standards as public schools.

Having read his Twitter feed (@teachcardona), I get the impression that he is a very decent and concerned administrator who cheers on students and teachers. He has not weighed in on political issues that roil the education policy world.

I am still hoping for a Secretary who recognizes that the past twenty years have been a nightmare for American public schools, their students, and their teachers. I am still hoping for someone who will publicly admit that federal education policy has been a disaster since No Child Left Behind and its kissing-cousin Race to the Top, modified slightly by the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” Maybe Dr. Cardona will be that person. We will see.

I believe that the federal government has exceeded its competence for twenty years and has dramatically overreached by trying to tell schools how to reform themselves when there is hardly a soul in Washington, D.C., who knows how to reform schools. Our nearly 100,000 public schools are still choking on the toxic fumes of No Child Left Behind, a law that was built on the hoax of the Texas “miracle.” We now know that there was no Texas miracle, but federal and state policymakers still proceed mindlessly on the same simple-minded track that was set into law in 2001.

Perhaps Dr. Cardona will introduce a note of humility into federal policy. If so, he will have to push hard to lift the heavy hand of the federal government. Twenty years of Bush-Obama-Trump policies have squeezed the joy out of education. Many schools have concentrated on testing and test-prepping while eliminating recess and extinguishing the arts. As an experienced educator, Dr. Cardona knows this. He will be in a position to set a new course.

If he does, he will push back against the mandated annual testing regime that is not known in any nation with high-performing schools.

If he intends to set a new course, he will grant waivers to every state to suspend the federal tests in 2021.

If he intends to set a new course, he will ask Congress to defund the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program, which is not needed and has proved effective only in spreading corporate charter chains where they are not wanted. Two NPE studies (here and here), based on federal data, showed that nearly 40% of the charters funded by the federal CSP either never opened or closed soon after opening. More than $1 billion in federal funds was wasted on failed charters. Let the billionaires pay for them, not taxpayers, whose first obligation is to provide adequate funding for public schools.

Further, if he wants genuine reform, he will begin the process of writing a new federal law to replace the Every Student Succeeds Act and dramatically reduce the burdens imposed by clueless politicians on our nation’s schools.

Dr. Cardona is known for his efforts to reopen the schools during the pandemic. He knows that this can’t happen without the resources to reopen safely. The pandemic is surging again. It is not over. He knows this, and he will have to move with caution not to put the lives of staff or students at risk.

I will not judge him until I see how he handles not only the present dire moment, but the legacy of twenty years of failed federal policy. I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Hope springs eternal. We can’t live without it.

dianeravitch | December 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm |