Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… 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… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)


Growing Number of Undocumented Adolescents Warehoused in Tents, Denied an Education

Do you remember the thousands of migrant children detained at the border?  It is easy to get distracted these days by crisis after crisis in the federal government and forget about important issues. When I found myself wondering recently whether there are still children and adolescents being detained, I realized I didn’t know whether or how this had all ended or been dragged on.  Then I read yesterday’s NY Times.

Caitlin Dickerson reports: “In shelters from Kansas to New York, hundreds of migrant children have been roused in the middle of the night in recent weeks and loaded onto buses with backpacks and snacks for a cross-country journey to their new home: a barren tent city on a sprawling patch of desert in West Texas.  Until now, most undocumented children being held by federal immigration authorities had been housed in private foster homes or shelters, sleeping two or three to a room.  They received formal schooling and regular visits with legal representatives assigned to their immigration cases.  But in the rows of sand-colored tents in Tornillo, Tex., children in groups of 20, separated by gender, sleep lined up in bunks. There is no school: The children are given workbooks that they have no obligation to complete.  Access to legal services is limited. These midnight voyages are playing out across the country, as the federal government struggles to find room for more than 13,000 detained migrant children—the largest population ever—whose numbers have increased more than fivefold since last year.”

The children being moved to the tent city in Texas are not toddlers or pre-schoolers: “Most of the detained children crossed the border alone, without their parents. Some crossed illegally; others are seeing asylum. Children who are deemed ‘unaccompanied minors,’ either because they were separated from their parents or crossed the border alone, are held in federal custody until they can be matched with sponsors, usually relatives or family friends, who agree to house them while their immigration cases play out in the courts.”

Dickerson adds that the rapid growth in the number of young people in custody—fivefold since last year—may seem surprising because the number of children crossing the border has not significantly increased. So, what is causing overcrowding in detention facilities and causing the federal government to move children to tent cities?

It turns out the problem is the Trump administration’s punitive crackdown this year on illegal immigration. The Center for American Progress’s Leila Schochet and Tom Jawetz provide some details: “Facilitating the safe and timely release of immigrant children from government custody has historically been a key priority of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).  A child in ORR custody can be placed into the care of an adult sponsor in the United States—a parent, family member, or other trusted adult that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deems capable of providing for the child’s physical and mental well-being. Previously, HHS would vet potential sponsors with the child’s best interest in mind and would not consider a sponsor’s immigration status when determining whether or not they were fit to care for the child.”  But in April, the Trump administration changed the rules, demanding that, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)… vet adult sponsors and other adults living in a sponsor’s household by taking their fingerprints and providing Health and Human Services their immigration status, name, date of birth, and other personal history.”

The NY Times‘ Dickerson adds that ICE reports it has, “arrested dozens of people who applied to sponsor unaccompanied minors.”  ICE confirms that 70 percent of those arrested had no previous arrest or criminal history.

The Trump administration is now warehousing in tents a growing population of young people because it has frightened family members and other responsible adults related to the children into hiding rather than encouraging them to come forward as potential sponsors.

The NY Times Editorial Board followed up the reporters’ news story: “(T)he crisis that has led federal immigration authorities to pull nearly 2,000 unaccompanied children (so far) out of shelters around the country in the dead of night and bus them to a ‘tent city’ in the desert town of Tornillo, Tex., is almost entirely of the American government’s own making… Immigrant advocates argue that the true purpose of the new sponsor requirements is to find, arrest and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. Given that dozens of these immigrants have already been arrested, and given that the vast majority of them have committed no other crimes, it’s not hard to agree. Meanwhile, thousands of children languish.”

The NY Times‘ Dickerson adds that avoiding licensed and well-regulated child care and educational services may be another motivation for the federal government to move young people to the Texas tent city: “The roughly 100 shelters that have, until now, been the main location for housing detained migrant children are licensed and monitored by state child welfare authorities, who impose requirements on safety and education as well as staff hiring and training. The tent city in Tornillo, on the other hand, is unregulated, except for guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services.  For example, schooling is not required here, as it is in regular migrant children shelters.”

The denial of schooling for the young people in the Tornillo tent city, however, remains a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe established 14th Amendment protection of the right to primary and secondary education for undocumented migrant children. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan renounced those who had advocated against the protection of the rights of undocumented children, declaring: “It is difficult to understand precisely what the state hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a sub-class of illiterates.”

Civil Rights Abuses Persist in Georgia’s State-Run Special Education Schools

In the October 1, 2018, New Yorker, Rachel Aviv presents the tragic story of a family whose child is trapped and isolated in a racially segregated and horrifically dysfunctional special education system operated since 1970 by the state of Georgia as a network of special schools for disabled children: the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support or GNETS.

Aviv presents GNETS’ role over several years in the life of Seth Murrell, beginning when Seth, a four-year old who is isolated, pretty much warehoused at school, and sometimes abused as a pre-schooler trying to adjust to school. We also learn of the struggles of his family, desperate to find quality services for Seth, who move several times trying to find a better school for a child eventually diagnosed with autism. The parents discover that once Seth has been referred to GNETS, no other Georgia school will enroll him. He will now be assigned to another GNETS school in any Georgia community where they move.

Family members worry about Seth and try to check up on him at school from time to time, including an aunt—a certified school teacher in Atlanta—who is familiar with how children are supposed to be served.  During drop-in visits to the GNETS schools where Seth is enrolled, they discover him alone in a classroom without a teacher; assigned to an isolation chair facing the wall for 30 minutes; locked in an isolation room; and lying on the floor, handcuffed to a chair.  On several occasions he arrives home from school showing physical marks of corporal punishment. Teachers—overwhelmed, desperate, and discouraged—report to Aviv that they lack certification and training. Some, including long-term substitutes, lack special education training; others lack any training or experience working with children who are autistic.

Aviv describes an attorney who began to investigate a complaint from another family: “Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office, a state-funded agency that represents people with disabilities, said that she first learned of the GNETS system in 2001, when a mother called to report that her son was put in a seclusion room nearly every day.  ‘It’s all little black boys at this school,’ the mother told her… Lipson studied the history of the schools, some of which were established in buildings that had housed schools for black children during the Jim Crow era.  At a time when there was an outcry against court-ordered integration, GNETS became a mechanism for resegregating schools.  ‘It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,’ she said.”

This is, of course, all illegal under federal education law, passed in many instances to protect the civil rights of children after the end of Jim Crow segregation, and under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Aviv explains: “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities learn in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ a loose term that may mean different things depending on the race or the class of the student. Nirmala Erevelles, a professor of disability studies at the University of Alabama, told me that, ‘in general, when it comes to people of color—particularly poor people of color—we choose the most restrictive possibility’…. According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued ‘under the guise of disability,’… ‘You don’t need to talk about any race anymore. You can just say that the kid is a slow learner, or defiant, or disrespectful.'”

Aviv reports: “Data obtained through records requests reveal that the percentage of students in the GNETS program who are black boys is double that of the public schools in the state. Most of the students in GNETS are classified as having an ’emotional and behavioral disorder,’ a vague label that does not correspond to any particular medical diagnosis.”

Aviv’s subject is not merely about Georgia, however. As a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is supposed to protect students served by the program in schools across the United States. Here is where the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’s Education Department are implicated. To address the very problem Aviv identifies, in 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Education established a “significant disproportionality rule,” to stop the disproportionate assignment of African American children—and particularly African American boys—to special education.  Aviv explains: “In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the ‘significant disproportionality rule,’ which required states to more vigilantly report when students of color are disciplined and placed in special-education classes at higher rates than their peers.  Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, and although black students make up only nineteen percent of students with disabilities, they make up thirty-six percent of those who are mechanically restrained—handcuffed, strapped to a chair, tied down.”

The Obama era “significant disproportionality rule” was scheduled to go into effect in the summer of 2017, but Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education has delayed implementation of the law for two years, with the intention of modifying or rescinding it. Key staff who helped design the rule during the Obama era have told Aviv of their disgust: “Michael Yudin, the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in Obama’s Department of Education, told me that he was appalled by the decision. ‘It flies in the face of the data, reams and reams of data, showing that the problem is massive.'”

There was, under President Obama, another attempt to curtail the abuses at the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.  Obama’s Department of Justice had filed a civil rights lawsuit against Georgia to “vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated in the GNETS Program.” Negotiations were underway in the summer of 2016, but the state of Georgia, gambling that a president less committed to civil rights would be elected, delayed settling the case.  Since then, Trump’s Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions has not made resolving this case a priority.

This brief summary cannot capture the details and nuances of this story. Please read Rachel Aviv’s Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Educaton System.

Rick Hess’s Mistake: Failure of Test-and-Punish Is Not Limited to a Few Districts That Have Disappointed

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has always been a corporate education reform kind of guy. That is why Hess’s honest analysis this week of the ultimate fraud of a succession of school district miracles—Washington, D.C.’s test score and graduation rate miracle under Michelle Rhee and those who followed her, Alonzo Crim’s Atlanta in the 1980s, Houston’s Texas Miracle under Rod Paige, Arne Duncan’s Chicago, and Beverly Hall’s Atlanta—is so refreshingly candid.

In all of these cases, as Hess points out, there was “a remarkable dearth of attention paid to ensuring that the metrics (were) actually valid and reliable.”  Second, it was “tempting for civic leaders and national advocates to accept happy success stories at face value—especially when they (were) fronted by a charismatic superintendent.” And finally “reformers and reporters (made) things worse with their lust for ‘celebrity superintendents’ and ‘model systems.’ Their fascination nurtur(ed) an echo chamber in which a handful of leaders (got) exalted, often for too-good-to-be-true results.”

One must give Hess credit for honestly admitting the failure of so much of what his own kind of school reformers have been exalting for the past quarter century—business school accountability for schools, driven by universal standardized testing, and evaluated by two primary outcomes—standardized test scores and graduation rates. But Hess makes a mistake when he attributes the problem to a few “model” school districts that have disappointed.

Hess’s explanation is inadequate.  Inadequate because the system itself—the whole idea of school reform based on high stakes testing—cannot work.  Daniel Koretz, the Harvard specialist on testing, tells us why in a recent book: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

Koretz defines the problem with high-stakes-test-based school accountability by exploring a primary principle of social science research. Forty years ago, Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” articulated a core principle now known as “Campbell’s Law”: “The more any quantitative social indicator 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.” (p. 38)

How does Campbell’s Law describe the dilemma Frederick Hess identifies?  Koretz quotes Don Campbell himself describing the distortion that will follow when high stakes consequences are attached to a school district’s capacity to raise its aggregate test scores: “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.” (p. 39)

In The Testing Charade, Koretz provides extensive evidence about all the ways high stakes tied to test scores have triggered Campbell’s Law—to invalidate the test results themselves and to undermine our education system and the experiences of teachers and students trapped by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act in a scheme to raise test scores at all costs.

One consequence is score inflation: “All that is required for scores to become inflated is that the sampling used to create a test has to be predictable… For inflation to occur, teachers or students need to capitalize on this predictability, focusing on the specifics of the test at the expense of the larger domain.” (p. 62)  We read about all the ways curriculum designers and teachers are incentivized to focus their classes on the specific elements of any particular academic discipline that have appeared on previous tests.

A second consequence, related to the first, is flat-out test-prep. Test prep narrows what is taught to students to the material that is tested and drills students about using clues in the test itself to come up with the right answers. Koretz identifies three kinds of bad test prep. Reallocation between subjects has been common when schools emphasize No Child Left Behind’s tested subjects—reading and math—and cut back on social studies, the arts, music and recess. Reallocation within subjects is when schools study past years’ versions of the state tests and ask teachers to focus on particular aspects of a subject.  Finally there is coaching. Schools and test-prep companies teach students to respond in a formulaic way to the format of the questions themselves. Koretz explains why all this has implications for educational equity: “Inappropriate test preparation, like score inflation, is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students…. Once again, disadvantaged kids are getting the short end of the stick.” (pp. 116-117)

And a third consequence, demonstrated in every one of Frederick Hess’s examples is cheating. Koretz examines the biggest cheating scandals, notably Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  He notes: “Cheating—by teachers and administrators, not by students—is one of the simplest ways to inflate scores, and if you aren’t caught, it’s the most dependable.” Sometimes teachers or administrators erase and change students answers; sometimes they provide teachers or students with the test items in advance; other times teachers give students the answer during the test.  And finally sometimes schools “scrub” off the enrollment rolls the students who are likely to fail.

Koretz presents the questions around cheating by educators as morally fraught. After all, test scores are not simply a proxy for the quality of a school or a school district:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

In a system that, by its very structure, is guaranteed to trigger Campbell’s Law, Koretz wonders about the moral implications of cheating: “Just who is responsible?  Is it just the people who actually carry out the fraud or require it?  Or are those who create the pressures to cheat also culpable, even if not criminally?” (p. 91)

Like Frederick Hess, Daniel Koretz recognizes that although outcomes-based, test-and-punish school accountability has been hyped and celebrated, ultimately this kind of school policy has not improved schools as promised.  Koretz digs deeper, however, to expose that the system itself—not merely its abuse by particular educators in particular school districts—is deeply flawed.

Koretz concludes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread. The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed. Many students are subjected to severe stress… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation… On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (pp. 191-192)

Will New California Law Banning For-Profit Charter Schools Make a Difference?

Many of the states passed charter school enabling legislation back in the 1990s, before there was any understanding of how these privately operated schools—naively imagined as innocent incubators for innovation—might take advantage of public goodwill and access to pools of tax dollars to find ways to make a profit. By now we ought to have learned a lesson.

There are a few instances of fledgling regulation—notably last week, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that is supposed to ban for-profit charter management companies and for-profit “sweeps” management contracts under which for-profit management companies take over and operate charters that are formally not-for-profit.

Living in Ohio, however—where the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow stole what is now known to be well over a billion dollars over a seventeen year period while legislators and potential state regulators looked the other way as campaign contributions flowed from the school’s founder and operator—I am skeptical about any state’s capacity to develop the political will to stop the ripoff.  Strong, ethical leadership by politicians would be required.

The problem with California’s new oversight law, according to those who have studied it, is that it really only pretends to impose oversight.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss fills in some history: “California has permitted charter schools—which are publicly funded but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies—since 1992.  Since then, the charter sector has grown so much that the state now has the most charter schools in the country, and the most charter school students.  It is estimated that there are about 1,275 charter schools, with a collective student population of about 630,000 students in California. Nearly 35 charter schools, with some 25,000 students are run by five for-profit companies. Though the number of charter schools has grown in California, oversight has not….”

Governor Jerry Brown, the founder himself of two charter schools in Oakland, has never been a fan of regulation.  In fact in the past, he has vetoed legislation that would have increased regulation. Last week, Brown, uncharacteristically, signed a law which bans for-profit charter schools, like the state’s affiliates of online schools operated by K12, Inc. The new law also prohibits the practice of nonprofit charter boards of directors’ hiring for-profit management companies to operate their schools. Gov. Brown has received widespread praise for signing—finally—a law regulating his state’s charter school sector.

But Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, spent months researching and writing Charters and Consequences, a blockbuster November, 2017, expose of what she dubbed, “California charters gone wild.” I urge you to review this fascinating report about charter school operations that, you would think, ought to have been banned by law a long time ago. In her response to Jerry Brown’s recent signature of Assembly Bill 406, however, Burris regrets that California’s new law will not effectively control some of the worst practices in California’s for-profit charter sector: “Assembly Bill 406, no matter how well intended, will not shut down California’s for-profit schools anytime soon. In some ways, it may make matters worse by obscuring the reality of what many charter schools are—schools run by private corporations that receive public funding with insufficient oversight and supervision.  And whether they are for-profit or nonprofit, there will still be ample opportunity in the charter sector for profiteers to take advantage of the public treasure and trust.”

In her report last November, Burris described tiny, broke and underfunded elementary school districts that have turned themselves into charter school authorizers and subsequently chartered affiliates of the largest national chain of for-profit charters, K12 Inc. The purpose is simple: Despite that the students in the online school are not required to reside within the boundaries of their school districts, these districts have been permitted to authorize big online charter schools merely for the purpose of collecting authorizing fees to pad their own school district budgets. Now that Gov. Brown has signed the new law, Burris still worries that unscrupulous operators will continue to find ways to negotiate around the details of the regulations.

She describes the Dehesa Elementary School District and an action the district took just last week to get around the new law before it takes effect: “It (Dehesa) has one tiny elementary school of 145 students, yet the district shows a total enrollment of 8,677 students due to its authorization of nine charter schools that can pull students from anywhere in San Diego County and adjoining counties… What is most interesting to note is that three K12 Inc. University Prep online charters, including those in Dehesa… were granted their operational number by the California State Education Department on September 9, two days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill banning for-profit charter schools. That is because the bill does not go into effect until July 1, 2019, giving K12 Inc. and other for-profit corporations nearly a full year during which they can work with authorizers to submit applications for new charter schools… And once they are authorized, they can’t be shut down until they are up for renewal in five years, which gives them a pass until 2024.”

At the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black tries to be optimistic. Considering the new California law, he concludes: “(I)t bars the most egregious and problematic behavior out there. And if this is just the first step toward more reform, we should welcome it. On the other hand, this bill leaves an enormous number of problems untouched and, if the public is left thinking those problems no longer exist, California is in a worse position now than it was before the bill.”

Reporting for California’s EdSource, John Fensterwald quotes Michael Kraft, a senior vice president for communications at K12 Inc., who doesn’t seem particularly worried that the new California law will curtail the operation of the affiliates of the nation’s biggest for-profit online charter school. Kraft explains that K12 Inc.’s relationship with its California operator, the California Virtual Academy, “has evolved over the years to the point where they (the affiliates of the California Virtual Academy) are independently run schools and the company does not believe that the bill would change how it currently delivers products and services.” Fensterwald paraphrases Kraft describing K12 Inc.’s plan to continue operating in California: “If it has to make changes to meet the requirements of the bill, then it will.”

New Yorker Profile Warns: When It Comes to Mark Zuckerberg, Be Careful!

Evan Osnos’s extraordinary profile of Mark Zuckerberg, published in the September 17, New Yorker, wouldn’t seem a fitting topic for coverage in this blog about public education. Osnos hardly touches on Mark Zuckerberg’s ventures thus far into education philanthropy—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which has made education-based philanthropy one of its primary foci, or the $100,000,000 gift to help Chris Christie and Cory Booker charterize the public schools in Newark, New Jersey, a controversial and poorly conceived initiative that did not improve the education of children in Newark.

Osnos’s profile explores the question of who has the power,”to pull the lever of what we see, hear, and experience.” Osnos is, of course, examining the role of Facebook and whether and how it functions as an arbiter of free speech. The central subject of the profile, however, is Mark Zuckerberg himself and how he thinks and operates.  Continuing to explore the issue of free speech, Osnos explains: “Zuckerberg is hoping to erect a scalable system, an orderly decision tree that accounts for every eventuality and exception, but the boundaries of speech are a bedevilling problem that defies mechanistic fixes.”

Last spring when Zuckerberg testified before Congress, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank described Zuckerberg as “the boy billionaire,” a caricature that precisely captures the Mark Zuckerberg Osnos depicts: a naif who knows coding and tech systems but who cannot comprehend his own and his company’s power.  Unfortunately, Zuckerberg also seems unable to grasp what he doesn’t know.

How the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative will affect public education remains unclear. Writing for Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explains: “In late 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan promised to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to their philanthropy, which would focus part of its work on improving American education… But the organization remains one of the least transparent funders in education.  Unlike a number of other philanthropies, CZI does not publicly list its grants, instead announcing only certain awards on Facebook or in press releases…  As a limited liability company, CZI is not required to list donations on its tax forms, unlike private foundations… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s recent giving vaults CZI into the top echelon of education funders, though it remains behind the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation for now.  Whereas CZI averaged a bit over $100 million in grants each of the last three years, Walton spent $191 million on U.S. education programs in 2016 and Gates spent about $367 million. That kind of funding is dwarfed by the public dollars spent on education. But philanthropic money can have an outsized influence on policy: think the rapid spread of teacher evaluation changes, the Common Core standards, and charter schools, all catalyzed by funding from major philanthropies in the last decade.”

Barnum summarizes a broad range of CZI’s grants that have been announced since 2016, including grants to promote what appears Mark Zuckerberg’s primary interest: personalized learning, defined in Zuckerberg’s thinking as the development of programs to help students learn independently via computer “CZI has funded personalized learning efforts directly in a variety of places: statewide in Rhode Island ($1.5 million), in more than 100 Chicago-area schools ($14 million), and in a small district in California, Lindsay Unified ($775,000).  It has supported personalized learning-focused work by leadership groups: Chiefs for Change ($3 million) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (nearly $400,000).  CZI has backed efforts to infuse the concept into teacher training, including through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching and Learning Academy ($3 million), the New Teacher Center ($1.7 million), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education ($1.1 million).”

Just as “personalized learning” for Mark Zuckerberg is defined as designing programs and apps that shape the way children can learn on their own in front of a screen, “community” also has a specialized definition in the world of Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Osnos explains what Zuckerberg means when he talks about building the Facebook community: “Over time, Facebook devoted ever-greater focus to what is known in Silicon Valley as ‘growth hacking,’ the constant pursuit of scale.  Whenever the company talked about ‘connecting people’ that was, in effect, code for user growth.”

Not only does Zuckerberg conflate company growth (and profit) with the kind of human relationships that most of us think of when we define “community,” he is also comfortable with encouraging his company to manipulate human psychology to grow his “community”: “Facebook engineers became a new breed of behaviorists, tweaking levers of vanity and passion and susceptibility.  The real world effects were striking… These powers of social engineering could be put to dubious purposes.” When the company’s design ethicist shared “his concern that social media was contributing to alienation… Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around.”

There is also Zuckerberg’s ethical naiveté—the assumption that people in “community” will pursue good and honorable ends and use his online system for the right reasons.  Osnos describes Zuckerberg dismissing the possibility that someone would use Facebook to try to manipulate the 2016 election: “(H)e still bristles at the implication that Facebook may have distorted voter behavior. ‘I find the notion that people would only vote some way because they were tricked to be almost viscerally offensive… Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.'”

Finally, Zuckerberg embraces the idea of disruptive innovation at all costs: “Facebook had adopted a buccaneering motto: ‘Move fast and break things,’ which celebrated the idea that it was better to be flawed and first than careful and perfect… In Zuckerberg’s view, skeptics were often just fogies and scolds. ‘There’s always someone who wants to slow you down,’ he said… ‘In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing.  The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.’ ”

Evan Osnos’s profile of Mark Zuckerberg hoists one red flag after another to warn anyone who might embrace Zuckerberg (and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) as arbiters of public education policy. For very good reasons, public schools have been the domain of the kind of people Zuckerberg calls “fogies and scolds.”  In so many ways public education as an American institution represents the very definition of a set of principles that starkly contrast with the values Mark Zukerberg and Facebook represent.  The evolution of our society’s public schools over time has demanded the creation of programs to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the obligation to serve all children.  And we have recognized the urgent need for laws to protect children’s equal access to schooling in a society where some with evil motives would deny quality education for children they dismiss as unimportant or undeserving.

  • Zuckerberg seems to lack a real understanding of community—the kind of community made up of educators and children together in a school learning to trust each other, to communicate with one another and to collaborate.  Public schools also serve as neighborhood anchors and the source of real live community pride.
  • Zuckerberg has tolerated a business culture of manipulating human psychology to make his product more addictive to children as well as adults. Public school educators and researchers continue to strive instead to make education more supportive of normal child and adolescent development. Another primary goal is to help children and adolescents discern occasions when they are being manipulated and to develop good judgement.
  • Zuckerberg prefers to reject the idea that someone might misuse his system for an evil purpose—to throw an election or incite a genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. The history of activism for justice in public schools demonstrates our society’s recognition of the need for laws banning racism and other kinds of institutional oppression in schools. Laws now protect the rights of racial and ethnic minorities; protect services for the disabled, and protect the rights of LBGT students at school. State school funding formulas are intended to protect equity in the distribution of tax dollars invested across jurisdictions. When students’ rights are denied, students and their families have a right to petition under law for protection.
  • Zuckerberg promotes the motto, “Move fast and break things. ” Inside the company, if his strategies fail and Facebook ceases to grow, Facebook may see its stock price drop. When education “reforms” fail, the victims are innocent children. In fact in almost every case the children hurt worst are the poorest children in the poorest communities. Core community institutions are also wrecked. We watched the Gates Foundation move fast to break up comprehensive high schools, and to announce the failure of that experiment a few years later.  Then the Gates Foundation experimented with financial incentives and penalties to make teachers work harder to raise students’ test scores.  When that experiment failed, the public school district in Hillsborough County, Florida was left covering millions of dollars in costs when the Foundation walked away.

In a 2013 NY Times column, tech-reform critic Evgeny Morozov describes the kind of thinker Mark Zuckerberg represents: “They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call ‘solutionism’: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal… Such predisposition makes it harder to notice that not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at ‘hackathons’… ‘In the future,’ says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, ‘people will spend less time trying to get technology to work… If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.’ ”

Morozov quotes Mark Zuckerberg: “There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” Morozov examines what is really underneath Zuckerberg’s thinking:  “Such digital humanitarianism aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside. After all, saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy, while a larger-than-life mission might convince young and idealistic employees that they are not wasting their lives tricking gullible consumers to click on ads for pointless products. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are competing for the same talent pool, and by claiming to solve the world’s problems, technology companies can offer what Wall Street cannot: a sense of social mission.”

Tax Cuts Part II: What State Tax Cuts Mean for Public Higher Education

Across many states in the past decade, especially after the 2008 Great Recession, followed by the Tea Party red-wave 2010 election, politicians in many states have assumed they could cut taxes—thereby curtailing the revenue stream flowing to the state—without its affecting what is the largest financial outlay in any state—the education budget.

Last spring, a wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and several other states, drew the nation’s attention to the catastrophic consequences of slashing taxes and cutting into state education budgets.  But now in mid-September, we find ourselves barraged by pre-election personal attack ads on television and mired in the scandal-ridden sensationalism of the Trump White House. Two posts on this blog—yesterday and today—review two of the consequences for education of the fiscal crisis in state budgets that schoolteachers brought to our attention last spring.

If tax cutting across many states has dangerously cut public investment in K-12 education, the American Federation of Teachers reports, “State higher education systems have fared even worse. Forty-one states were spending less on higher education in 2017 than they were in 2008, in real terms.  While state support has declined, the overall average cost of attending college has risen. Tuition costs for two-year colleges are up by an average of 36 percent, and for (public) four-year colleges, they are up by an average 40 percent, even after adjusting for inflation.”

For Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer adds: “The number of states leaning heavily on tuition to pay for instruction at public colleges and universities grew last year, surpassing a significant symbolic milestone.  A total of 28 states used tuition to generate more than 50 percent of their total educational revenue in the 2017 fiscal year…. It was the first time more than half of states were recorded relying more on tuition dollars than on government appropriations.”  And reliance on tuition became more widespread despite that, “state and local appropriations rose 2.1 percent between 2016 and 2017 to total $94.5 billion.”

What is the long-term trend in state funding for higher education? Seltzer continues: “After adjusting for inflation, state appropriations per full-time equivalent student are about 10 percent below their levels of a decade ago and down 8 percent from 25 years ago.  Net tuition per full-time equivalent is up 36 percent over a decade and up 96 percent over 25 years.”

In a stunning policy analysis published in August, Senior Policy Analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy, Peter Ruark explains the complicated story of how tax cutting in Michigan has decimated the state’s general fund, with cascading consequences.  In 2010, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s home state began borrowing from the K-12 School Aid Fund—stealing millions from K-12 public education—to pay for the state’s colleges and universities.  It was to have been a one time loan—to be paid back into the School Aid Fund, but instead the policy has been repeated year after year since 2010 with no attempt to pay back the state’s K-12 education School Aid Fund.

Ruark explains: “For 2010, in order to balance a state budget that had been beaten down over the past decade by tax cuts and the Great Recession, Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Michigan Legislature used a supplemental bill to appropriate $208.4 million in School Aid Fund dollars to community colleges. The one-time appropriation included language stating that ‘funds appropriated to community colleges from School Aid Fund will be considered a loan’ that ‘will be repaid from General Fund to School Aid Fund over the period of FY 2011-12 to FY 2015-16.’  The Legislature never paid the funds back.”

Ruark continues: “In Budget Year 2012, Governor Rick Snyder’s first budget drew from the School Aid Fund to replace General Fund dollars going to universities and community colleges, with no language stating it needed to be repaid.  In its final form, the nearly $400 million taken from K-12 was accompanied by a $470-per-pupil cut in the K-12 foundation allowance, the only year since Proposal A (the 1955 law establishing the School Aid Fund) in which the foundation allowance was statutorily cut. The cut was accompanied by a very large tax cut for businesses that cost $1.6 billion, with only part of that amount made up by increased taxes on individuals. The Legislature later passed a supplemental budget that took an additional $63.7 million from the School Aid Fund to pay for community college operations, for a total of $459.6 million in School Aid Fund dollars shifted from K-12 to postsecondary institutions in 2012.  The shift has been the norm during the past eight years as every budget introduced by the Snyder administration and passed by the Legislature has shifted at least $350 million—and often more—from K-12 public schools to universities and community colleges.”

The AFT’s national report depicts graphically that only 9 states are spending more per-pupil to support colleges and universities than they were before the Great Recession. Most states where teachers walked out last spring to protest a catastrophic K-12 school funding crisis are spending far less on a per-pupil basis for students in colleges and universities than they were in 2008—Arizona, $1, 051 per-pupil less—North Carolina, $866 less—Oklahoma $437 less—and Kentucky $400 less.

In his report for Inside Higher Ed, Rick Seltzer concludes that by 2017: “Net tuition revenue per-student (had) increased in 33 states… Michigan collected the highest net tuition revenue per full time-equivalent student, $15,000.”

Teachers walking out last spring were trying to teach us all something about the kind of society we have been becoming.  It is a simple lesson really: If citizens and corporations don’t pay taxes for the services we all depend on, not only will teachers struggle with insufficient salaries, but we’ll all struggle to have the kind if public services most of us and our children need and have in the past taken for granted.