Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… Martinez is an accountant who has been called ‘analytics heavy.’  And in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years… Martinez has never taught or run a school as principal. And, thus, in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with ‘boots on the ground’ experience… Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  Many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent, and educator voice are now at the forefront. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Let Us Count the Ways that Charter Schools Rip Off their Students and the Taxpayers

The National Association for Public Charter Schools, one of the big lobbying organizations for charter schools, proclaims that these institutions operate as public institutions to promote the public interest. But charter schools are a classic example of private contracting. They operate with public tax dollars, but they are governed (often without transparency) by private boards, which themselves operate under state regulations that tend to be extremely lax and poorly enforced. Here are two excellent examples of prominent advocates for traditional public schools and against school privatization dissecting, in depth, the ways that charter schools continue to rip off the public.

New Book Exposes How Charter Schools Regularly Find Ways to Select Students Who Will Be a Credit to the School

On September 10, Teachers College Press published a new book by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado at Boulder: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape EnrollmentMommandi and Welner explore a topic that has emerged again and again in local examples of injustice over the years: Charter schools somehow manage to select their students despite that they advertise themselves as public schools, which are required by law to serve every student who comes through the door.

Back on January 20, 1960, when my family moved to the small town of Havre, Montana, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to the office of Wilbur Swenson, then the school principal.  As the law required, Mr. Swenson assigned me to the 7th grade, and I began school immediately that morning. Despite that today most people must formally enroll at the school district’s main office, the requirement for universal enrollment still works the same way in public schools across the United States. Public schools are required by law to provide programming to serve the needs of all students and must protect their rights. Public schools are not permitted to choose their students.

Over the years, we have read story after story of charter schools that call themselves “public” but somehow cheat on this requirement and get away with it. Now Mommandi and Welner have summarized and explored all the ways charter schools cheat on this requirement, and the reasons why they do: “Our research… taught us that such philosophies about limiting access are not uncommon among charter school administrators. In fact, we 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.”

In the publicity Teachers College Press released about the new book, Mommandi and Welner provide a table of “13 broad categories containing the many different ways that charter schools shape their enrollment.” Charter schools have especially found ways to exclude students who require expensive special services: “(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.”

New Story Exposes For-Profit  Management Companies with “Sweeps Contracts” Reaping Huge Profits from Shady Real Estate Deals at the Expense of the Nonprofit Charter Schools They Manage

The Network for Public Education’s executive director Carol Burris reports:  “National Heritage Academies (NHA), the third-largest for-profit charter chain in the nation, is selling 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase. Charter Development Co., the real estate arm of NHA, will receive the payout from a sale that requires nearly $1 billion to finance. This massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth is running into some roadblocks, however, in NHA’s home state of Michigan. Both Charter Development Co. and National Heritage Academies are owned by J.C. Huizenga, an education reform entrepreneur… The sale of the 69 NHA campuses in seven different states, like the operation of Huizenga’s charter schools, is wrapped in secrecy, even though taxpayers have paid the mortgages for years.”

Most state laws require charter schools to be nonprofits. But many small private nonprofit boards turn over the operation of their charter school to a for-profit management company. Sweeps contracts are commonplace—contracts under which the nonprofit board turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to the for-profit management company without any transparency about how the management company will spend the funds. National Heritage Academies manages its 90 schools under sweeps contracts. “Other examples of sweeps contracts include the contract between the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy and the for-profit chain Accel Online Ohio, a Nevada limited liability company; the contract between the Northeast Raleigh Charter Academy, and its for-profit management Torchlight Academy Schools; and the contract between Ohio Virtual Academy and K12 Virtual Schools.”

Burris continues: In most cases, for-profit management is an attempt to get around Title 20 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires (charter) schools to be nonprofit organizations to be eligible to receive federal funding. The nonprofit school is a facade for the for-profit corporation… Ultimately, Huizenga’s charter school cash-out financed by the taxpayers will probably go forward.  Unless Congress acts and closes the loophole, the 139 for-profit corporations that manage more than 1,100 charter schools in the United States will continue to put profits before taxpayers and kids.  And more cash-outs funded at taxpayers’ expense will occur.”

Charter schools have been operating now for a quarter of a century, and we have watched their abuses city by city.  But the stories of violations of the public interest and and fraud and corruption have only become more complex as their operators figure out new ways to rip off public tax dollars and violate core principles of public education by quietly selecting their students and leaving students with expensive needs in the public schools.

In the Budget Reconciliation, Congress Must Support Biden’s Plan to Increase Investment in Full-Service Community Schools to $443 Million

President Biden has proposed urgently needed reforms to address poverty and income inequality and their effects on children. By expanding the Child Tax Credit (for this year only) in last spring’s American Rescue COVID-19 relief plan, Biden and Congress took a major step to reduce child poverty temporarily. As part of the federal budget reconciliation, Congress absolutely should include Biden’s proposal to extend the expansion of the Child Tax Credit. But Congress should also take care of another of the President’s plans that has not been as extensively reported: President Biden has proposed to increase funding for Full-Service Community Schools—from $30 million to $443 million.

Full-Service Community Schools provide wraparound services located inside the school building to address families needs at an easily accessible location. Here is what I was astounded to discover a decade ago when I visited New York City Public School 5, The Ellen Lurie School. This elementary school houses a medical clinic; a dental clinic; a mental health clinic; rooms filled with young children in Head Start and a brightly lit room filled with toddlers—some accompanied by their parents—in Early Head Start. We saw a classroom set up for evening English classes for parents and another classroom filled with commercial sewing machines for job training for parents. We observed an after school program serving well over a hundred children; some of the children were folk dancing while others were tending an enormous garden and others were cooking the vegetables they had grown in the garden. We talked with the Community School Director, who helped parents connect with other social services located outside the school and also patched together funding from Medicaid, Head Start, and the federal “21st Century Learning Centers” after school program, along with some philanthropic grants. Her responsibility was to work with the principal to coordinate the Community School services along with an excellent academic program.

Income inequality and poverty are overwhelming challenges for American families. In early September, for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington reported new data from the Russell Sage Foundation documenting economic inequality between white, African American, and Hispanic children in the United States: “In 2019, the median wealth level for a white family with children in the U.S. was $63,838. The same statistic for a Black family with children was $808. Hispanic families with kids fare little better. They have a median wealth of $3,175, which equates to 5 cents for every dollar of wealth in an equivalent white household… Wealth is calculated by aggregating a family’s assets and subtracting from it their debts. The median for white families largely consists of the value of the homes they own minus mortgages, with additional wealth coming from savings and inheritance. Among Black families homeownership is much less common, as are savings or inheritance, which collectively shrinks the median wealth to the paltry figure of $808.”

Families without resources need help locating assistance, and Full-Service Community Schools locate support for families right in the same building where the children are at school.  The growth of Full-Service Community Schools is not merely an urban phenomenon.  The Minnesota education writer, Sarah Lahm reports on the importance of a Community School in the Deer River School District, “a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota,” where “the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles…. Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe…. Approximately one-third of Deer River’s student population is Native American…. More than two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless” and “almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.”

Earlier this month Lahm explored the role of a Full-Service Community School in inner-suburban Minneapolis—in Brooklyn Center rocked by the tragedy in April 2021 of the killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer: “Offering assistance in a time of crisis is something full-service community schools may be especially equipped to do.” Programming supported by community partnerships helped bring the return of school engagement not only after Wright’s tragic death, but also after a year of disruption by the COVID pandemic: “Sizi Goyah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn Center… is overflowing with enthusiasm these days. It’s summer, and students from Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where he teaches, have been spending their days outside, learning about drones and other hands-on science and technology topics. ‘They are seeing engineering coming to life,’ Goyah says happily, noting that the summer program he’s part of is a way to help students re-engage in learning after the disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. The summer school option has been brought to life with help from local partners that work alongside Brooklyn Center Community Schools, an approach that is standard practice for this suburban school district… This includes not only support for summer school courses but also a whole range of on-site and community based initiatives.”

U.S. NewsLauren Camera cites data documenting the effectiveness of Full-Service Community Schools: “Research shows that community schools have a wide range of positive impacts on students and throughout the community, from improving attendance, academic achievement and graduation rates, to reducing disciplinary actions and increasing the physical and mental health of students and their families.  One analysis found that community schools yield up to $15 in social benefits for every dollar invested. And they’ve proven especially important for underserved students and their families….”

The President and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, Raymond Pierce celebrated Full-Service Community Schools in a commentary last week for Forbes Magazine: “President Biden’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education includes an investment of $443 million to expand the Full-Service Community Schools program. That’s more than 10 times the amount invested in fiscal year 2021, and for good reason. In his testimony presenting the Department’s proposed budget, Education Secretary Cardona explained: ‘This program recognizes the role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods, and funds efforts to: identify and integrate the wide range of community-based resources needed to support students and their families, expand learning opportunities for students and parents alike, support collaborative leadership and practices, and promote the family and community engagement that can help ensure student success.'”

Legal Experts Challenge Secretary Cardona to Withhold COVID Relief Dollars from States Blocking Mask Mandates

On Wednesday I noticed a stunning new proposal for confronting the governors who are blocking uniform mask mandates in their states’ public schools. The authors of the proposal are shocked that “governors and legislators in eight states—the very states with the lowest vaccination rates and highest number of COVID infections—have taken the audacious step of blocking uniform mask mandates on schools.”

Here is the proposal: “The time for pleading with politicians to reverse course has run short. The Biden Administration has a tried and tested tool for protecting the nation’s children from politicians who persist in elevating ideology above the interests of their citizens—the power of the purse. The Administration also has a duty to use that power… When states knowingly put children in harm’s way and openly defy federal law, the federal government has no alternative but to use all available authority to protect them. This means withholding federal COVID relief money from states until they lift or rescind anti-mask policies and allow local districts to comply with the CDC’s universal mask guidance.”

The proposal’s authors are David Sciarra, a nationally known authority on school law and Executive Director of the Education Law Center, and Derek Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina. These are legal experts who know federal education law and who believe it is time for Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education to do what he must.

Here is their charge to Secretary Cardona: “No one should envy Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for the situation he faces. He can count on one hand the number of times prior administrations have held back federal funds owed to states. But when states act willfully under color of law to put their children in harm’s way, the Secretary has no other choice. Federal funds should only flow to states that follow the law and actively provide students a safe place to learn.”

How are governors violating federal law when they refuse to follow CDC guidance requiring that children wear masks at school?  Sciarra and Black explain: “These actions directly violate the letter of the law on multiple levels. No policy that ignores CDC guidance and deprives schools of the most important tool available to protect the health, safety, and lives of students under the age of twelve can be said to conform to Congress’s express direction to reopen schools safely. No policy that substantially increases the risk that schools will again be forced to go virtual can be said to carry out the Congressional mandate to ensure the continuity of in-person instruction. And no policy that denies students with health-related disabilities the reasonable accommodations necessary to receive equal educational access can be said to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sciarra and Black compare today’s federal responsibility to protect children’s health to steps the federal government took during the Civil Rights Movement to protect children from state imposed racial segregation: “These anti-mask policies parallel southern states’ response to Brown v. Board of Education…. Like politicians decades ago, today’s governors and legislators insist that individual rights somehow trump the law of the land. When the federal government hit schools where it hurts—their pocketbooks—they begrudgingly began to heed Brown‘s command to dismantle segregation.”

Sciarra and Black conclude by challenging Secretary Cardona: “Everything now rests on the Secretary. He must act to protect our school children.” Surely Secretary Cardona will feel called to fulfill what these experts define as his obligation under federal law.

The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.

With the Ohio Legislature, Even When You Win, You Lose

In the new state budget, the Ohio Legislature supposedly fixed an inequitable and troubling scheme for funding the state’s extensive private school vouchers.

In recent years, through something called “school district deduction funding,” the state has counted each voucher student as though he or she attended the public schools in the district where the voucher student resides and then sent the voucher amount—$4,650 for younger students and $6,000 for high school students—to the private school right out of the local school district budget.  In my school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, and many others, the cost of each voucher was far more than the district received from the state in school foundation basic aid for that student. The result in my school district, which has a growing religious community applying for vouchers, was that in five years the district’s annual loss to vouchers grew from $2,256,017 in 2017 to $9,017,250 in 2021 (last school year). That $9,017,250 lost by our school district last school year constituted 45 percent of our school district’s state foundation basic aid even though 1,699 of our district’s 1,792 voucher students—roughly 95 percent— have never been enrolled in our public schools.

Statewide, the school district deductions for vouchers have been disequalizing. The state offered the vouchers only to students who reside in the attendance zone of a Title I school, which means that the vouchers extracted the money for vouchers out of the budgets of school districts serving concentrations of the state’s poorest children—leaving less money for the students remaining in the public schools.

As promised, in the state budget passed at the end of June, the Legislature ended school district deductions to pay for private school tuition vouchers (and other deductions from school district budgets to pay for charter schools).

In a state where the only way to make up for money lost to vouchers and charters is to go on the ballot to try to pass local school operating levies, there was widespread relief and jubilation about the end of local school district deductions. In my own school district, on the assumption that we won’t need to pay such high local school taxes anymore, some people have even proposed that the school board rescind the most recent school levy.

But the end of school district deduction funding for vouchers was passed by the Ohio Legislature as part of a new school funding plan that had been included in the new state budget. The Fair School Funding Plan had been designed with a six year phase-in. But the Republican leaders in the Ohio Senate refused to pass the full six year phase-in. They merely passed the first two years of the plan, which means that the full plan won’t be operational this year or even next year. In fact, it may not ever be realized unless future legislatures fully fund it.

This summer, when the Ohio Department of Education released computer runs of state foundation per-pupil funding for the current 2021-2022 school year, it became clear that—despite the end of school district deduction voucher funding—there is a continuing state funding penalty for school districts which have experienced explosive growth of vouchers over the recent years. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s FY2022, Summary School Funding Reports released this summer, for my district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, total net state school funding will be $7,024,199,33, an increase of only $41,310 over last school year. By looking at two relatively comparable inner-ring suburban Cleveland school districts, the problem becomes evident: Shaker Heights, a smaller district in a wealthier community, will be getting $15,310,927.25 in net state school funding, and Lakewood, a slightly smaller district and economically similar to Cleveland Heights-University Heights will be getting $17,143,938.65 in net state school funding.  State printouts show Cleveland Heights-University Heights receiving 46 percent of the amount of state funding Shaker will receive and 41 percent of what Lakewood will receive from the state.

What is going on?

In August in a powerpoint which Cleveland Heights-University Heights’ district treasurer, Scott Gainer presented to the CH-UH Board of Education, he explains that, while the new state budget promised a “fair school funding plan,” legislators continue to assign the ongoing costs of previously awarded vouchers to the local school districts where the students carrying those old vouchers reside. While, the Legislature’s recent elimination of school district deductions for vouchers will protect  local school district budgets from absorbing the cost of new vouchers the state awards in the future, it appears that at least for a time local school districts will carry the burden of the explosive growth of vouchers in recent years.

But the state no longer calls what is happening “a school district deduction.”   How did the Legislature accomplish this slight-of-hand? Instead of calculating the actual phase in of an entirely new school funding formula, the Ohio Department of Education is using last year’s net state funding for each school district as the baseline for future funding.

When I asked Gainer to explain what’s happening, he told me: “The big discrepancy is that the starting point the state is using to begin phasing in the plan (over 6 years, with no guarantee that they will continue to do so) is the net funding from last year (gross funding less all voucher/scholarship/charter deductions).  We have had so many deductions that our net was lower than the surrounding school districts. In theory, by year 6 of the phase-in, the other districts will have moved very little, while we will increase each year to a similar funding level. I’m not holding my breath that the plan will survive two more biennial budgets.”

There is some reason to hope for some more optimistic news next month.  In July, the Ohio Department of Education announced that computer runs based on last school year’s net funding levels as the basis of the new school funding plan are temporary while the state figures out how the new formula will work—with a planned phase-in (but remember the Legislature’s stated decision to adopt only the first two years of the six-year phase-in).  The Ohio Department of Education promises new calculations in October, 2021: “The State Funding Payment Reports and payments for July through September will generally reflect net funding levels equal to FY2021 levels, with the goal of implementing the new funding calculations… by October.”

Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools Treasurer Gainer expects that in October the district will experience some jump in revenue, but there are two caveats.  First, the calculations in the school funding plan included in the state budget were based on the enactment of a six-year phase-in, and the district will likely experience only what that first year of correction will bring (and legislative leaders in the Oho Senate continue to hint that the six-year phase-in may never be fully implemented).

Additionally, there is a second problem. The new budget folds an important budget line from the previous budget biennium, Governor Mike DeWine’s Student Wellness and Success Program, into the current budget’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid without additional funding. Ohio’s school funding expert, Howard Fleeter explains that the change “raises questions as to whether this funding stream will ultimately be spent on new initiatives to help reduce non-academic barriers to student success (as envisioned by Governor DeWine) or will simply be absorbed into the spending that districts are already incurring.”  The committee that developed the Fair School Funding Plan had originally anticipated that a big bump in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid would be awarded to schools in the first year—the current school year—of the new budget biennium, but the Ohio Senate blocked the adoption of that provision.

For these reasons, in a July 9 statement on projected school funding under the new state budget—including the elimination of the school district deduction, Gainer estimated that in October, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district may realize some additional state foundation funding beyond the $7,024,199,39 projected in Ohio Department of Education printouts over the summer: “(S)imulations provided by Ohio’s school business professional organizations indicate CH-UH will receive an additional $2 million in year one (21-22 school year) and an additional $1.3 million in year two (22-23 school year) over our current funding… The detailed amounts will be provided by the Ohio Department of Education in October.”

Certainly the students, educators, and local taxpayers in Cleveland Heights and University Heights can hope for this additional funding, but its addition would still leave us far behind the state funding being awarded to comparable neighboring school districts.

The problem represents a serious case of structural inequity in what was supposedly a “fair school funding plan.” Ohio legislators managed to revise, readjust, and underfund the plan in the new state budget.  They have merely perpetuated a long history in Ohio of inadequate and inequitable public school funding.

COVID Relief Dollars Should Be Used to Address School Districts’ Immediate and Sometimes Desperate Problems

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes the fiscal condition of school districts a decade after the 2008 Great Recession: “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)

And in, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, published in 2021, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire warn readers about the same fiscal conditions: “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.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

These warnings are why I worry about press reports quoting the corporate school reformer-economist Marguerite Roza, of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, worrying (here and here) that Congress has not imposed enough regulation of how school districts can spend the mass of one-time COVID-19 American Rescue Plan relief dollars released by Congress last spring. While Roza advocates for innovation instead of basics like small classes and facilities repair, public schools across the United States entered the COVID-19 era far behind—many with crumbling buildings, others short of teachers and counselors, and others lacking libraries, school nurses, and art and music programs. The only exceptions are the school districts in wealthy exurbs which can tax their citizens at high rates to enrich their own local schools.

I think local school superintendents and elected school boards— the people closest to each school district’s challenges—are best positioned to identify and prioritize what needs to be addressed with this year’s infusion of COVID relief funds.

To their credit, these same reporters also investigate why school districts cannot afford to worry about Roza’s advice. For Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum describes “School officials debating how to balance what students need now with their balance sheets down the line—and whether it’s responsible to use relief money to add large numbers of staff.”  After all, when this money runs out—Congress has given school districts three years to invest the COVID-19 relief dollars—a school district may not be able to raise enough funding from state and local tax revenues to sustain the employment of recently hired, salaried staff.

For the Associated Press, Collin Binkley and fellow reporters explain: “The Associated Press, relying on data published or provided by states and the federal government… tallied how much money was granted to nearly every district in the country… The AP tracked more than $155 billion sent to states to distribute among schools since last year, including general pandemic relief that some states shared with their schools… Nationwide, high-poverty areas received much more. Detroit received the highest rate among big districts at more than $25,000 per student. It was followed by Philadelphia, with $13,000 per student, and Cleveland, at more than $12,000.” COVID relief dollars are being distributed by Congress according to the Title I Formula, which prioritizes federal dollars for school districts that serve concentrations of very poor children.

The AP‘s reporters devote considerable attention to Detroit and the plans of the district’s relatively new school superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, appointed when the district was finally returned to its elected school board after being nearly bankrupted by years of state takeover under Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed emergency fiscal managers for the purpose of cutting costs.  Darnell Earley, for example, was appointed to manage Detroit’s schools after he left Flint, where, as that city’s emergency manager, he cut costs in the city’s water program and created the lead-poisoning water crisis.

Vitti, who just earned a high rating from his school board for his handling of last school year during COVID-19, is featured in the AP‘s story about the almost desperate choices facing school superintendents as they decide how to invest COVID-19 relief dollars in schools suffering from staffing shortages and delayed maintenance:  “In Detroit, that means fixing buildings with crumbling ceilings and mold infestations… The district is using some of the government money to hire tutors, expand mental health services, and cut class sizes.  But at least half of its $1.3 billion windfall is being set aside to make long-neglected repairs. ‘For decades, we have been inequitably funded to deal with the enormous needs that poverty and racial injustice have created in our city,’ Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Associated Press in an interview. ‘Now with the COVID relief, we’re going to be able to put a significant dent into the challenge.’… In Detroit, federal money will be used to continue hazard pay and teacher bonuses that the district started offering last year. Vitti said teaching is harder in the city because of its deep poverty, and he wants teacher pay to reflect that.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education argues that using COVID relief dollars for delayed school building maintenance is urgently needed—something that has been highlighted by inequity in schools’ capacity to adequately ventilate buildings to protect children and teachers from the spread of COVID -19: “Exposure to indoor pollutants at schools is also disproportionate by race.  Black students are 16% of all public school students, but more than a quarter of them attend schools with poor air quality.  52% of all students are white, but only 28% of them attend schools with the worst air quality… To combat COVID-19, federal and state governments have allocated hundreds of billions of dollars, including large sums to improve school infrastructure. And fortunately, actions taken to minimize the pandemic threat in schools will also address these longstanding air quality problems: modernized ventilation ducts, heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, HEPA filters, and less crowded classrooms will leave students and educators in even healthier environments than they had in 2019.”

How serious is the fiscal crisis for some school districts? For the NY Times, Eleni Schirmer describes the pileup of long term indebtedness. For Philadelphia and Chicago, for example, paying debt service has taken precedence over reducing class size, hiring more counselors and maintaining buildings. Schirmer reports: “For Philadelphia teacher Freda Anderson, setting up her classroom involves clearing plaster, dust and paint chips from tables, chairs and desks… Years of deferred maintenance have caused dust and paint chips to scatter across the room… A report released this spring revealed an asbestos epidemic creeping through Philadelphia schools. During the 2019 school year, 11 schools closed because of toxic physical conditions; a veteran teacher is suffering from mesothelioma, a lethal disease caused by asbestos.”

Here is how school district indebtedness works: “To keep the lights on, the School District of Philadelphia—like thousands of districts across the country—has increasingly turned to debt financing: They issue bonds to borrow money from financial markets… Investment funds purchase these bonds, thus lending the funds to local governments or school districts.”

But there is built in inequity that places the heaviest burden of school district debt on the school districts with little property tax base and populations living in poverty: “Moody’s Investor Services, a pre-eminent credit-rating agency, bases a school district’s credit score on the district’s existing property value and residential income. The poorer the school district, the more it pays in interest and fees to borrow—from the point of view of creditors, such schools are ‘riskier.’  The results of this process are unsurprisingly classist and racist… What starts as public schools’ budget shortfall ends with financial sector profits. The interest that creditors take from lending money to municipal governments is also, conveniently, tax exempt, rendering municipal bonds into a kind of onshore tax haven.”

What is clear from all this reporting is that the competing needs school superintendents must manage differ from place to place, but they are complex and in many cases critical. Yes, Congress has imposed little regulation on American Rescue Plan relief dollars for school districts. But years of sometimes catastrophic underfunding are forcing school administrators to invest COVID relief dollars in the most basic requirements for building maintenance, staffing and programming.

The debt-service problem only further exacerbates the desperation of some of the nation’s largest school districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty.  In Chicago, with mayoral governance of the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s must balance political calculations around her civic and educational responsibilities. Lightfoot has said she will respond to creditors instead of reducing class size, hiring school social workers, or repairing buildings. Schirmer explains: “In the short term, the Biden administration’s agenda could provide a much-needed cash injection into the schools… However, even this aid is vulnerable to private sector bond market obligations… Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised the city’s creditors that she would use the money to pay debt service.  In response, community organizing coalitions, including the Chicago Teachers Union, have demanded that the mayor use relief funds to help people—not banks.”

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

New Plan Tucked into Ohio Budget Creates a Path Out of State Takeover for Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland School Districts

Jeff Bryant introduces a special, back-to-school issue of The Progressive with a commentary, The End of School Reform.  Bryant’s piece narrates the quiet death of long running policies across the nation’s school districts, programs that were central to corporate, standardized test-based school accountability and the idea that punitive school turnaround plans would quickly raise overall test scores.

“It was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Board of Education announced in late May that it was closing down its school turnaround program and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a private management company back into the district. The turnaround program had been a cornerstone of ‘Renaissance 2010,’ the education reform policy led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan…. Another news event affecting Chicago public schools that got very little national attention was the decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind mayoral control of Chicago’s schools and bring back a democratically elected school board… A third story from the Chicago education scene was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its ‘no excuses’ approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications… Each approach was among the pillars of ‘education reform’ favored by previous presidential administrations….”

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 8.

In the same commentary, however, Bryant notes this year’s dramatic rush across state legislatures to expand private school tuition vouchers and increase the number of charter schools. Public schools remain threatened by some of the trends of the past two decades, but some of the corporate accountability ideology seems to be fading—not with a bang and with hardly a whimper.

These same trends are operating in Ohio, where—in the new state budget— the legislature found myriad ways to expand vouchers, introduce new tuition tax credit and education savings account neo-vouchers, and expand charter schools.

But at the same time, the legislature simply and quietly incorporated a plan to phase out one of Ohio’s worst school turnaround strategies: the House Bill 70 state takeover of so-called failing school districts by state appointed Academic Distress Commissions that oversee so-called “failing” school districts and push aside their elected boards of education. The legislature has created a path to end the Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland state school takeovers.

History of House Bill 70 and Ohio’s State School Takeovers

House Bill 70 was passed in the middle of the night just before the legislature’s summer recess in 2015. As the Ohio Senate considered a House bill to expand the number of wraparound, full-service schools that locate medical and social services in school buildings serving poor families, someone introduced an amendment for state takeovers of school districts with low test scores, and the amendment replaced the original bill’s purpose. The amendment was introduced; opponent testimony was not permitted; the bill passed; and it was immediately signed into law. At the time, accountability-hawk school reformers in the legislature and the Ohio Department of Education believed that state appointed Academic Distress Commissions would radically improve low scoring school districts.

As recently as 2019, the Ohio Senate even considered a plan to further expand state takeover of local school districts. A Senate proposal would have established a statewide School Transformation Board which would have assigned a state approved nonprofit or for-profit school improvement organization for any district with an “F” rating for three years running on the school district report card. The state’s School Transformation Board would then have appointed a  local School District Improvement Commission to serve the same function as the original HB 70 Academic Distress Commission and appoint a CEO for the district. The local CEO in the Senate’s proposed plan would have had the power to fire principals and teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools. The plan was never enacted, but debate continued from late spring into September.

New FY 2022-2023 Ohio Budget Provides a Path to End State School Takeovers

The phase out in this year’s state budget of what’s called “The Youngstown Plan” has received little press coverage. But the plan is significant, though it does involve a three year process and significant state oversight all along the way.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains: “The new plan gives districts three years to meet state-approved benchmarks, with the option to apply for up to two years of extensions. During that time, the powers of the CEO (appointed by the district’s Academic Distress Commission) are reduced to those of a regular superintendent, and the locally elected school board regains its power. The academic distress commission would remain in place until the district is fully released from the state’s purview. If a district does not meet its goals, it will revert back to state control as outlined by House Bill 70.”

Awareness of the failure of HB 70 has been building within the Ohio Department of Education. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben quotes the state school superintendent expressing his loss of confidence in a program he once supported: “In a 2019 report about Academic Distress Commissions, the state’s superintendent of public instruction criticized the existence of the commissions saying they lacked the input of the local education administration and tried to fit unique academic situations into a ‘one size fits all approach.’ ‘While an Academic Distress Commission approach may produce some positive results, the potential for significant opposition makes it tremendously challenging for it to function in a way that leads to successful district turnaround,’ Superintendent Paolo DeMaria wrote in the report.”

Today the mood in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland is hopeful. The Youngstown Vindicator‘s Raymond L. Smith describes the reaction of Youngstown’s current elected school board president, who will no longer be shunted aside by the Academic Distress Commission: “Youngstown school board President Ronald Shadd said the board will look at multiple ways of preparing to move forward.  It will wait for results of a state performance audit of the district and will be working with CEO Justin Jennings and the Academic Distress Commission in making a plan for the district’s future… Shadd expressed appreciation to all those in the community—including (Rep.) Michelle Lepore-Hagan and Sen. Michael Ralli… who have been working toward a goal of local control.  School board member Brenda Kimble, the previous board president, said she is overjoyed the three school districts will have paths forward to move from under that system. ‘We have to make our plan and focus on ways to make it successful,’ she said.”

East Cleveland, Youngstown, and Lorain are among Ohio’s poorest communities.  In Ohio, we have all watched years of upheaval as state appointed Academic Distress Commissions put in place arrogant CEOs—Krish Mohip in Youngstown and David Hardy in Lorain—who fought with parents, teachers and the community at large. The attitude of the legislators who rammed through this program was shameful. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quoted then-Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

Woytech quotes Lorain School Board President Mark Ballard: “This was a hard-fought battle over the last six years to right what we believe was a flawed approach to trying to improve schools… Our community wants local control and local oversight of our schools and today, we now have a path to make that a reality. This legislation is the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work, dozens of trips to Columbus, and hours of discussions with the state.”

Ohio education finance expert, Howard Fleeter reminds us all, however, that in the new state budget, the Legislature failed to fund a significant increase in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, despite that full funding of this program in FY2022 had been a central part of the Fair School Funding Plan whose methodology was adopted into the state budget. Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland are three of Ohio’s school districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. While the Legislature has done a good thing by providing a path for these districts out of state takeover, the Ohio Legislature has a responsibility to fund these districts adequately to address the urgent needs of their students. These districts will need significant assistance to meet the state’s conditions for the phase out of state takeover.

Ohio has a history of aggressive punishment of poor school districts and a failed history of helping them.

Jeb Bush’s Pitiful Attempt to Defend Federal Funding of Charter Schools Managed by For-Profit Companies

It’s clear that the charter school lobby is upset about the House of Representatives’ effort in its proposed budget resolution to curtail abuses in the federal Charter Schools Program and to reduce the program’s appropriation by $40 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

Jeff Bryant explained last week: “The top lobbying group for the charter school industry is rushing to preserve millions in funds from the federal government that flow to charter operators that have turned their K-12 schools into profit-making enterprises, often in low-income communities of color. The group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), objects to a provision in the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2022 education budget that closes loopholes that have long been exploited by charter school operators that profit from their schools through management contracts, real estate deals, and other business arrangements.”

The executive director of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nina Rees went on C-Span to try to defend the program, and now it’s clear that the organization is calling on old allies to push Congress to cancel the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed elimination of all federal funding for charters operated for-profit by Charter Management Organizations. Bryant reminds us that Nina Rees was the deputy assistant for domestic policy for former Vice President Dick Cheney.

This week Jeb Bush, the ultimate old advocate for school privatization, came out of the woodwork with an op-ed circulated all over the country by the Tribune News Service. Bush’s piece appeared in our Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer. Toward the end of his article, Bush gets to the point and protests the proposed House Budget Resolution: “Not only does it specifically cut $40 million in education funding (from the Charter Schools Program), but the House budget bill also includes alarming language that would prevent any federal funds from reaching any charter school ‘that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.'”

Bush thinks that the U.S. Department of Education ought to be allowed to make grants to charter schools whose operators are, in many cases, collecting huge profits at the expense of our tax dollars and at the expense of children whose education programming is reduced to ensure operators can make a profit. I guess he isn’t bothered by the charter management companies that have managed to negotiate sweeps contracts that gobble up more than 90 percent of the state and federal operating dollars and manage the school without transparency.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) just published a major report, Chartered for Profit, that details how all this works. Recently NPE’s executive director, Carol Burris was interviewed about the extent of the problem: “The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services. But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

In his recent commentary, Bush buries his defense of for-profit charter school management companies near the end of an article packed with tired, meaningless rhetoric. He begins by alleging that our system of public schools derives from an “outdated mentality”—a factory model dating from the 1890s that won’t work in the “21st century economy (which) is vastly different.” I guess he means that public schools haven’t kept up with the times, or maybe he is implying that something is wrong with what kids are learning in public schools.  When he explains that public schools serve 56.6 million students and charter schools serve 3.3 million students, one wonders why he fails to recognize that investing federal dollars to improve the nation’s public schools would be the best strategy for serving the mass of America’s students. After all, in a well known study, economist Gordon Lafer has explained how charter schools in just one school district, Oakland, California, suck $57.3 million every year out of the public schools that serve the majority of Oakland’s children and adolescents.

Next, Bush references a litany of studies, based, he says, mostly on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  He claims this research proves that charters are better academically. Without specific references, it is hard to know which studies he is citing, although he does name one source—from the University of Arkansas, where the Department of Education Reform is a think tank funded by the Walton Foundation.

In her recent book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch, who served for several years on the NAEP Governing Board, refutes Bush’s argument that charter schools are academically superior: “Charter schools on average get about the same results when they enroll the same demographic groups of students. Those charter schools that report outstanding test scores typically have high rates of attrition and do not enroll the most difficult to educate students, such as English language learners and students with disabilities. Charters have the freedom to write their own rules about suspensions and discipline and some have used this freedom to push out the students they don’t want, those who are discipline problems, and those who can’t meet the school’s academic demands, who then return to public schools.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 135)

Next, in an argument that would be funny if it were not so sad, Bush claims that critics of for-profit charter schools are captives of the money-grubbing teachers unions. “(U)nions fear that choice will lead to fewer students attending schools that fund their private coffers… It’s a feedback loop without a soul.”

And finally, Jeb Bush explains that, by defunding for-profit charter schools, members of the House of Representatives want to eliminate federal support for the education of “millions of students, especially our nation’s special-needs students who qualify for funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and our students living in poverty.” Has Bush not read President Biden’s budget proposal, whose public school investments are copied in the House of Representative’s proposed budget resolution? The President and the House Appropriations Committee propose to increase funding for wraparound Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million, double Title I funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children, and significantly increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, now called ExcelinEd, have been advocating for charter schools and school privatization for years. To promote these very ideas, Bush and ExcelinEd spawned Chiefs for Change (which has since become an independent organization) in order to promote school privatization and corporate school accountability among state school superintendents and commissioners and local school superintendents.

Betraying his long alliance with our former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, Bush condemns public schools because, he writes, they are a system which is not designed to serve individual students. The move to privatize public education is merely an expression today’s wave of libertarian individualism (at public expense) and consumerist, market-place thinking.

It is useful to keep in mind the warning of the late political theorist Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)