How Did the Public Discourse Move from Democracy in Education to Individualistic, Marketplace School Choice?

Robert Asen is a University of Wisconsin rhetorician who studies political discourse. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 2021, Asen traces the pivot in public values and political thinking that led from philosopher John Dewey’s definition of progressive public education as the necessary institution for forming our democracy to the adoption in Asen’s home state of Wisconsin of America’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee, followed by Scott Walker’s successful promotion of the statewide expansion of marketplace school choice.

Asen presents four chapter-long “case studies” of individuals and situations that trace the transformation. The first of these profiles explores John Dewey’s thinking about democracy: “Individual and collective represent for Dewey two dimensions of the same vitality of human relationships. Individuals do not grow and mature in isolation, nor do collectives dissolve individuality.” “Individuals may practice democracy as a way of life by building relationships with others. When these relationships bring individuals together in collectives, they enable the creation of community. Community thus represents the embodied practice of organizing public relationships democratically.” “Like democracy, education unfolds through relationships. Dewey criticized traditional pedagogical practices because they fail to build relationships in the classroom.”

Asen acknowledges one absence in Dewey’s thinking about community; he imagined community perhaps as a small New England town. Dewey did not fully grasp what Asen describes as “counterpublics,”—a society  stratified by race and inequality of power: “Dewey and (W.E.B.) Du Bois lived in New York City at the same time, but they did not appear to participate in the same local community… Dewey underscored the importance of face-to-face community ‘without acknowledging any black face or community.'”

In contrast to Dewey, Milton and Rose Friedman “anticipated and influenced a wider neoliberal perspective that has treated markets not as a demarcated realm of society but as a general framework that can be applied to any activity.” “Taken together the Friedmans’ commitments to individuals, freedom, and market-inspired relationships outline a model of publicity and a policy agenda… Freedom orients this public as an ultimate value that elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power. In this way, differences between parties to a relationship do not matter in terms of shaping the dynamics of their relationship.”

The book’s third chapter becomes an exploration of the very familiar discourse of Betsy DeVos, but getting there, Asen traces 60 years of public thinking about education beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson—through the 1982 Reagan era publication of A Nation at Risk, which shifted “the focus of education discourse from education as a means of social and political equalization to education as a means to economic prosperity”—to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit (chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) which stressed the need for “an educated workforce… in an increasingly competitive world economy” and launched the idea of national education goals—through the passage, in 2001, of No Child Left Behind, which mandated holding schools accountable according to their capacity to raise aggregate standardized test scores every year.

From my point of view, as someone who has paid attention to public education through this entire history, Asen’s judgment about the pivotal role of No Child Left Behind in setting up the discourse for the subsequent growth of school privatization may be the most significant observation in this book: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (p. 81)

Asen moves from this national history and his profile of DeVos to the operation of the discourse of privatization in his home state, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, state assembly member and Black activist Polly Williams did not follow the Friedmans’ individualist script. Williams was disillusioned with the slow pace of desegregation in Milwaukee: “In her advocacy of vouchers, Polly Williams balanced individual and community concerns. As a policy tool, vouchers permitted individual Milwaukee parents to choose a private school… Yet Williams supported vouchers to help her community.” Ultimately, however, voucher supporters in Wisconsin adopted the Friedmans’ argument: “Against democratic visions, market-based publics offer alternative alignment of means and ends, foregrounding individual choice as the means for realizing… freedom. Nevertheless, as they supported the statewide expansion of vouchers, the Republican-majority members of the Joint Finance Committee associated various ends with vouchers—improved educational outcomes for all students, cost savings, new incentives for public school accountability—that when amplified, ultimately appeared as corollary benefits of choice.”

Finally, Asen profiles widespread public school advocacy across Wisconsin today, advocacy in the spirit of John Dewey, but explicitly recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity that dominates a state where the voters in homogeneous rural communities must somehow accommodate the needs of concentrations of Black and Brown students in Milwaukee and Madison and the residents of those cities must negotiate racism in the state capitol. Asen conducted focus groups of educators and public school advocates about they ways they are finding to lift up the needs of a student population divided by race, ethnicity, and economic inequality: “The partners in this dialogue bring distinct perspectives that offer new insights through their interaction. In his writings, Dewey underscored the value of everyday action as a mode of critical praxis that can turn coordinated individual action into a powerful collective force. Our interviewees explicated the texture and diversity of everyday action through their practices of community-building, unpacking connections among community, local identity, and difference… (O)ur interviewees explicated the dynamics of race and racism (and other potential sources of unity and division) in the actual processes of community-building. They shared Dewey’s commitment to community but recognized tensions, struggles, and frustrations that accompany community engagement.”

In the end, Asen sums up precisely why the Friedman-DeVos discourse is wrong for a democratic society: “By constructing education as a discrete package that individuals may receive separately and variously, dissociation redirects education away from potentially mediating the individual and the collective in the cultivation of democratic publics and toward a role of preparing individuals to pursue their self-interests in market publics.”

Asen affirms the overall vision of John Dewey as the way to move forward: “A democratic education may support students in living their lives productively in coordination with others, pursuing individual interests while recognizing how relationships shape these interests and build life-enriching collective affiliations… A democratic education may foster recognition of the varied consequences of human action, which Dewey understood as the basis of public formation.  Individuals do not choose only for themselves; their choices carry consequences for others who must live with the potentially ameliorative and baneful effects of these choices… A democratic education may illuminate the transformative power of publics for the people who participate in them.”

A Long History of Housing Redlining Has Shaped Today’s School Finance Inequity

In Schoolhouse Burning, a fascinating history of public education and racial injustice published in 2020, constitutional and civil rights scholar Derek Black describes school funding inequity based on studies by school finance expert, Bruce Baker: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

In April of this year, 2022, the Albert Shanker Institute published a new study by Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo and Preston C, Green III that digs deeper into the history of school finance inequity than earlier studies, which have documented inadequate school funding for students living in school districts with higher family poverty. The new study examines the long racist history of housing discrimination and its correlation with today’s school finance inequity across seven U.S. metropolitan areas—Baltimore, the Bay Area, Birmingham, Hartford, Kansas City, San Antonio, and the Twin Cities—during the past century:

“It is, perhaps, more palatable to view unequal educational opportunity as a side effect of income and wealth segregation than it is to see it as the end result of racism and discrimination. Yet the reality is that economic segregation, while interdependent with racial/ethnic segregation today, has its roots in generations of institutional policies and practices to keep people separate based solely on their race or ethnicity. Racism built the machine, even if economic inequality helps keep it running now.”

Baker, Di Carlo, and Green examine, “the association between modern school funding adequacy (and demographics) and ‘redlining’ maps drawn up during the late 1930s. These maps , which were commissioned by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), assigned A-D grades to neighborhood across the United States. The grades ostensibly assessed home lending risk, but they were based in no small part on the race of neighborhoods’ residents. The distribution of grades, therefore, roughly reflects both the segregation situation at the time and general (racialized) risk assessments that directly or indirectly influenced not only HOLC aid but also other federal (e.g., Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration) loan insurance decisions going forward, a practice known today as redlining…. The vast majority of neighborhoods that received lower (C or D) HOLC grades between 1935-40 are today located in school districts serving larger shares of Black and Hispanic students… Schools located in previously C-/D- graded zones are also typically those serving lower-income neighborhoods today…. Virtually all (school) districts that contain a large area of C-/D- graded HOLC zones are today funded below estimated adequacy levels.”

Here is how housing redlining across metropolitan areas of our nation has effected school funding over the past century: The ‘first order’ effects of segregation on wealth and income inevitably play out in ‘second order’ effects on local property tax revenue for K-12 schools. Most notably within most of our metro areas, the typical Black or Hispanic student’s district receives less local property tax revenue than does the typical white student’s district. State general aid in most areas closes at least part of the gaps, but, in any case, these resource disparities must be evaluated with an eye on a ‘third order’ effect of segregation on funding: The concentration of poverty in racially isolated areas not only depresses revenue, but also increases educational costs. That is, districts serving larger shares of high-needs students must invest more to achieve the same outcomes. This creates (and sustains) unequal educational opportunity—i.e., large gaps in the adequacy of school funding between students of different races and ethnicities living in the same metro area.”

Baker, Di Carlo, and Green conclude: “We establish… that, both nationally and in all seven metro areas upon which we focus in this report, Black and Hispanic homeowners, relative to their white counterparts, own homes of lower value and pay higher effective property tax rates. We then show… how these discrepancies—due to interdependent economic and racial/ethnic segregation—translate into not only lower local revenue for the typical Black and Hispanic student compared with their white peers, but also higher costs. The end result is severely unequal educational opportunity, which at each juncture is created and perpetrated by racial discrimination.”

Reminder: As Pope Francis Visits Canada, Read the New Report on U.S. Indian Boarding Schools

Pope Francis has been in Canada this week to apologize for the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the Canadian government in the forced assimilation of indigenous children into the Euro-Christian culture through a system of residential schools operated largely by the Church during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Washington Post reporters Chico Harlan and Amanda Coletta quote Pope Francis declaring: “It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language, and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this.”

The United States operated a similar boarding school project with the same purpose as Canada’s.  While the Pope visits Canada, we in the United States ought to take the opportunity this week to read a fine, but little publicized, report released in May, 2022 by the U.S. Department of the Interior: Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. Complied by Bryan Newland, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the new report tells a fascinating, easily accessible story of a largely hidden history.

Here are just some of the facts you will learn: “The Department found that between 1819 and 1969, the Federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 Federal schools across 37 states or then-territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. Some individual Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for multiple sites… Initial results show that the earliest opening date of a Federal Indian boarding school in the system was 1801, and the latest opening date was 1969.”(Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,  p. 6)

And more: “The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.”(Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,  p.7)

In a fascinating book, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, David Wallace Adams examines the purposes and operation of the boarding schools in the United States: “The first priority was to provide the Indian child with the rudiments of an academic education, including the ability to read, write, and speak the English language…  As the Superintendent of Indian Schools observed in 1887, an Indian’s ‘inability to speak another language than his own renders his companionship with civilized man impossible.’… Beyond language instruction, Indian schools should introduce the child to the civilized branches of knowledge—arithmetic, science, history, and the arts—not with the idea that he would master these areas, but that he might ‘catch at least a glimpse of the civilized world through books.’ … Second, Indians needed to be individualized. In many ways, the issue of individualization went to the very heart of the Indian question. In the philanthropic mind Indians were savages mainly because tribal life placed a higher value on the tribal community than individual interests… In the end, they must be inculcated with the values and beliefs of possessive individualism. They must come to respect the importance of private property, they must internalize the idea of self-reliance, and they must come to realize that the accumulation of personal wealth is a moral obligation… The third aim of Indian education was Christianization.” (Education for Extinction, pp. 21-23)

David Wallace Adams sums up the schools’ purpose: “From the policymakers’ point of view, the civilization process required a twofold assault on Indian children’s identity. On the one hand, the school needed to strip away all outward signs of the children’s identification with tribal life, that is to say, their savage ways. On the other, the children needed to be instructed in the ideas, values, and behaviors of white civilization. These processes—the tearing down of the old selves and the building of new ones—could, of course be carried out simultaneously. As the savage selves gave way, so the civilized selves would emerge.  As a ‘total institution’ the boarding school was designed to systematically carry out this mission.” (Education for Extinction, p. 101)

In the boarding schools across the United States, children were punished for speaking to each other in their own languages.  K. Tsianina Lomawaima, an American Indian educator and advocate, describes the role of a society’s primary language: “Language is the means through which parents and grandparents socialize their children and grandchildren, imparting all that a community and a people believe their children ought to learn and become. When that bond is broken, intergenerational ties and community relationships are ruptured. Hence, rights to language are fundamental to collective and personal identity….” (To Remain an Indian, p 136)

Earlier this week, the Washington Post‘s reporters interviewed several of the people who had traveled to Alberta to listen to Pope Francis’s apology, including one man who had been enrolled as a child in one of Canada’s residential schools: “Victor Buffalo was 7 years old and spoke no English when he was sent to Ermineskin (School)… Buffalo said his relationship with his parents, who also attended residential schools, was strained for many decades after he left the school in 1961. Severing ties to Indigenous culture, including familial ones, was an aim of the system. ‘The greatest thing that we lost was love,’ Buffalo said ahead of Francis’s visit. ‘The love of a family, the love of a mother, the love of a father.'”

The Department of the Interior’s  Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report documents that dispossession of culture, language, and especially family was also the explicit purpose of the boarding schools in the United States:

“After 1871, Congress enacted laws to compel Indian parents to send their children to school and to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations to ‘secure the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children’… There is ample evidence in Federal records demonstrating that the United States coerced, induced, or compelled Indian children to enter the Federal Indian boarding school system… Federal records indicate that the United States viewed official disruption to the Indian family unit as part of Federal Indian policy to assimilate Indian children… (T)he Meriam Report found in 1928 that the… ‘government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life. Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the Indian children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other. The theory was once held that the problem of the Indian could be solved by educating the children not to return to the reservation but to be absorbed one by one into the white population. This plan involved the permanent breaking of family ties, but provided for the children substitutes for their own family life by placing them in good homes of whites for the vacations and sometimes longer, the so-called ‘outing system.’” (Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, pp. 35-39)

As you think about Pope Francis’s visit to Canada this week, I urge you to read the U.S. Department of the Interior’s new report on American Indian boarding schools across the United States, Alaska, and Hawaii.  An important step in coming to terms with the moral implications of the misuse of education is to reflect on this hidden history.

Although Manchin Doomed the Child Tax Credit in Build Back Better, Discussion Hasn’t Totally Stopped

It would appear that Senator Joe Manchin’s sabotage of the expanded Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better has killed the restoration of last year’s extraordinary but temporary improvement of this federal program as part of the American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill. But America’s child poverty advocacy coalition has not yet given up and neither have the experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Democratic leaders in Congress—Senators Sherrod Brown, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Ron Wyden and Raphael Warnock—and Representatives led by Rosa de Lauro are still in conversation with Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Richard Burr and Steve Daines, who have offered two versions of their own Republican Child Tax Credit proposal.

It is urgently important for America’s public school educators and child advocates to keep on pushing for expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable. The educational damage of child poverty cannot be solved through school reform. While teachers can support children whose lives are ravaged by our society’s alarming economic inequality, public schools alone cannot undo the stresses and privations that poverty imposes on America’s poorest children.

Much of the ongoing conversation this month has been about the Family Security Act,  proposed by Senator Romney and other Republicans, which would replace the Build Back Better Better version of the Child Tax Credit that was rejected by Senator Joe Manchin. Last week a coalition of national child advocacy organizations, the First Focus Campaign for Children, wrote a letter to Senators Mitt Romney, Steve Daines and Richard Burr to explain why their recent version of the Family Security Act isn’t good enough: this most recent version will leave America’s very poorest children in worse straits than a version Romney proposed in 2021.

Here is the First Focus Campaign for Children: “The good news is that we know what works to reduce child poverty.” A 2019 landmark National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) “study finds that a child allowance, operating as an extension of the Child Tax Credit, is the most powerful tool we have to combat child poverty and narrow the racial poverty gap. Extensive research shows when households with children receive cash transfers, they spend it on resources that support their children’s healthy development—improving their physical and behavioral health and educational outcomes and leading them to earn more as adults… The first version (2021) of the original Family Security Act proposed by Senator Romney would have cut child poverty by an estimated 32.6%… Households with the least resources would have been eligible to receive the full (newly increased) Child Tax Credit… Unfortunately, as the Family Security Act morphed into version 2.0, changes focused on adults were made to the Child Tax Credit and significantly reduced the positive impact it would have on millions of children. The ‘best interests of children’ became an afterthought as the focus shifted to some sort of ‘deservedness’ standards for adults that has the effect of punishing children. As a result, the Niskanen Center’s updated analysis shows that the Family Security Act 2.0 would only reduce child poverty by just 12.6%.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details the primary reason why the latest version of the Family Security Act would punish children in families with the lowest income: “To qualify for the maximum credit for each child in the family, families would need to have earned at least $10,000 in the prior year… Families with earnings below $10,000 would receive a proportional credit. For example, a family earning $5,000 would receive 50 percent of the maximum credit for each child.”  Families with no income would no longer qualify, but couples earning up to $400,000 per year would qualify as would single parents making up to $200,000 annually.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities further explains: “The $10,000 earnings requirement to receive the full credit would apply to all families, including parents with babies and young children, retired grandparents caring for their grandchildren, and parents with disabilities that may limit their ability to work.  It would also newly require caregivers not only to live with the child but also to have legal custody of the child, which is stricter than current law and may disqualify many grandparents or other relatives who care for children from claiming the credit. And it would impose a new restriction for families that include immigrants: under current law, children must have a Social Security number (SSN) to qualify for the Child Tax Credit, but the proposal would impose an additional requirement that a parent also have an SSN, denying the credit to children who are U.S. citizens if their parents lack an SSN.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains another serious problem when several of the provisions of the newest version of the Family Security Act, are computed together: “The Romney proposal… (would require) families with low and moderate incomes to pay for more than half the cost of expanding the credit… The Romney plan would dramatically cut the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) a credit that provides an income boost for workers with low and moderate incomes, and eliminate the ‘head of household’ tax filing status, which millions of single parents who work at low-paying jobs use when they file their income tax returns… For example, consider a single mother who has a toddler and a daughter in second grade and works as a home health aide, making $25,000 a year. Her family’s Child Tax Credit would grow by $3,640 under the Romney plan, but they would lose $4,105 from the EITC cuts and the elimination of the head of household filing status, for a net income loss of $465. If both children were age 6 or older, the net income loss would be even larger: $1,665.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes what would be the primary effects of the latest Family Security Act provisions: “Denying the full credit to children based on their parents’ earnings would do virtually nothing to boost parental employment and would withhold help from the children who most need it….

  • “In more than 95 percent of families who benefit from making the credit fully refundable, the parent or other caretaker is working, between jobs, ill or disabled, elderly or has a child under age 2.
  • “Evidence from both the United States and Canada strongly indicates that giving the full credit to all children, including those whose families don’t have earnings in a year, won’t affect adults’ work participation to any large degree. Most estimates suggest around 99 percent of parents would continue to work under an expanded credit.
  • “An earnings requirement hurts children whose parents are least able to meet basic needs, exposing these children to serious hardship.
  • “Research links additional income to better outcomes for children in families with low incomes. The added income could significantly improve their long-term health and how well they do in school, make it more likely they will finish high school and attend college, and boost their earnings as adults.”

When Congress did not renew last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which temporarily made it fully refundable to all families with children, whatever their income, the program reverted to its pre-American Rescue Plan status. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphatically reminds us all of the current Child Tax Credit’s primary injustice: “The major flaw in the current Child Tax Credit has been its denial of some or all of the credit to children in families with little or no income, even though they stand to benefit the most from the extra income. Prior to the Rescue Plan’s temporary expansion of the credit, roughly 27 million children received less than the full credit or no credit at all because their families earned too little. They included roughly half of all Black children, half of Latino children, roughly one-fifth of white children, one-fifth of Asian children, and roughly half of children living in rural areas.”

Ohioans Demand that Illegal and Racially Biased Districts for State Board of Education Be Redrawn

The Ohio State Board of Education is trapped in Ohio’s gerrymandering mess.

Yesterday Honesty for Ohio Education, a large coalition of Ohio organizations, sent a formal letter to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine calling on DeWine to “perform your obligation to designate legally compliant State Board of Education districts ahead of the August 10, 2022 candidate filing deadline. The State Board of Education districts designated in your January 31, 2022 letter are unambiguously non-compliant with state law….”

Last Thursday, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (has) announced… that he instructed the 88 county boards of elections to implement new boundaries for the Ohio State Board of Education that Gov. Mike DeWine created in January—which civil right groups and teachers unions have criticized as gerrymandered.”

Hancock explains that the districts Governor DeWine created in January are illegal according to Ohio law, which “specifies that each (state) school board district must have ‘three contiguous Senate districts as established in the most recent apportionment for members of the General Assembly. But no Senate district shall be part of the territory of more than one state board of education district. Each state board of education district shall be as compact as practicable. The districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural and some districts that primarily consist of territory in urban areas.'” Hancock adds that in the current map, “several Ohio State Board of Education districts lack three whole Senate districts.”

Confusion and concern about the designation of Ohio State Board of Education district lines has been part of a much wider legislative district gerrymandering crisis in Ohio. State law requires that the districts for the State Board of Education be redrawn every ten years, and that the map be established by January 31.  The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben explains what has happened this year: “Each (State Board) district is required to be made up of three contiguous state Senate districts. DeWine—who convened and has served as a member of the redistricting commission since last September—used the state Senate map that was adopted by the Ohio Redistricting Commission on January 22. That map has since been revised four times after rejection from the Ohio Supreme Court, and the map now in place was adopted in February, after the (State) Board district deadline had passed.”

When he announced implementation of DeWine’s map last week, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose declared that he has “resolved uncertainties over state school board districts resulting from the protracted litigation over redistricting maps, and brought needed clarity to the candidates running in them.” There is considerable irony when a state official announces that a blatantly illegal district map will bring clarity to the election process.

The past year’s political wrangling has additional implications for the current controversy about the State School Board district map. Governor DeWine already wields considerable control over Ohio’s state board of education. He appoints 8 of the State Board’s 19 members, with eleven members elected from the districts across the state. At the end of last October, 2021, Governor DeWine, under pressure from powerful Republican Ohio state senators, forced the resignation of two of his own appointed members of the State Board, including the board’s sitting president, Laura Kohler. The State Board’s conservative majority had recently voted to replace an eloquent anti-racism resolution, passed by the State Board in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder, with a far more banal resolution. Kohler and the other member DeWine forced to resign had voted to retain and not to retract that 2020 anti-racism resolution.

In the context of this recent history, it should be no surprise that, as Laura Hancock reports, the State Board redistricting map proposed by DeWine in January, and now implemented by Secretary of State Frank LaRose, “could make it difficult for Black candidates from the Cleveland and Columbus areas to be elected once current members leave the board, since DeWine’s proposal redrew urban areas to include more suburban and exurban areas.”

The letter Honesty for Ohio Education sent yesterday to Governor DeWine emphasizes the obvious racial bias embodied in the map LaRose said he has now implemented: “Chief among (the map’s) deficiencies is the lack of centralized State Board of Education (SBOE) districts in densely urban Cuyahoga and Franklin counties. State law says ‘the SBOE districts shall include, when practicable, some districts that primarily consist of territory in rural areas and some districts that primary consist of territory in urban areas.’ Both Cuyahoga (metropolitan Cleveland) and Franklin (metropolitan Columbus) counties house three wholly contained state senate districts. As such, each county should have a wholly contained SBOE district. This will ensure Ohio’s largest school districts have adequate representation when issues are debated by the State Board of Education. These counties are comprised of some of the most diverse and marginalized students in the state. If Ohio is committed to improving academic achievement for all students and creating a high-quality, honest and equitable education system that serves every student, our largest and most vulnerable student populations must be heard and represented.”

Honesty for Ohio Education’s letter details the ways in which the currently implemented State Board of Education districts fall short in both fairness and legality. The letter includes a list of State Board districts that explicitly violate state law because they either lack three contiguous state Senate districts or illegally split up a state Senate district across several State Board of Education districts.

The letter is signed by: ACLU of Ohio, Bexley Anti-Racism Project, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, Common Cause Ohio, Equality Ohio, Erase the Space, Honesty for Ohio Education, League of Women Voters Ohio, LOVEboldly, National Association of Social Workers-Ohio, National Council for Jewish Women-Cleveland, Ohio Conference of NAACP, Ohio Poverty Law Center, Ohio Student Association, OPAWL-Building AAPI Feminist Leadership, Ohio Education Association, Ohio Federation of Teachers, Ohio PTA, Policy Matters Ohio, Public Education Partners, Red Wine & Blue, SPEAK Coalition (Students Promoting Equity and Knowledge), The Freedom Bloc, and YWCA Columbus.

Ohio Public Education Partners & Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education Join Heights Coalition in Submitting Voucher Case Amicus Brief

On July 1, 2022, the Heights Coalition for Public Education—in collaboration with co-amici, Ohio Public Education Partners and the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education—filed an amicus brief in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to support plaintiffs in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit. The amicus brief asks the court not to dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit, as requested by state defendants.

The Vouchers Hurt Ohio litigation at issue—Columbus City School District et al. v. State of Ohio et al challenges the constitutionality of state funded EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers.  State legislation has consistently expanded the scope, scale and cost of vouchers since 1995, when Ohio initiated a pilot program for children enrolled in the Cleveland Public Schools. EdChoice vouchers are now available in 87 school districts, and EdChoice Expansion vouchers are available in all 610 Ohio school districts.

Although the Ohio Legislature approved a state budget for the FY 2022-2023 biennium that included a school funding formula based on the actual cost of educating Ohio’s children and adolescents in the state’s public schools, the Legislature failed fully to invest in the plan. Lawmakers chose instead to increase the state’s investment in private education, leaving communities without relief from funding lost to vouchers.

In Columbus City School District et al. v. State of Ohio et al, more than 100 Ohio school districts and the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed suit on January 4, 2022, challenging the Constitutionality of Ohio’s two largest voucher programs. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District is a lead plaintiff in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit.

The Heights Coalition’s interest in the litigation comes from the harm the Cleveland Heights and University Heights communities have experienced due to unfettered growth of vouchers. EdChoice vouchers have resulted both in lost education opportunities for the public school district’s students and an increase in the tax burden for residents of that school district.

In the brief filed on July 1, co-amici  ask the court not to dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit which challenges the following injustices in today’s Ohio school funding:

  • The rapid and uncontrolled growth of EdChoice vouchers has created a situation which violates the Ohio Constitution’s mandate for adequate school funding, equitably distributed, and also violates the 25-year-old Ohio Supreme Court decision in DeRolph v. Ohio which declared overreliance on local property taxes unconstitutional.
  • EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers constitute preferential treatment of private schools over public schools because in a number of school districts the state awards more state funds per student to private school voucher students than to the public school students in those districts.
  • When the state funded the FY 2022-2023 state budget, the state increased its investment in private school tuition vouchers at the expense of fully funding the so-called Fair School Funding Plan the legislature launched in that same state budget.
  • EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers have increased racial segregation.  In the school districts where the greatest number of vouchers are granted for private schools, many of the publicly enrolled students are African American, but most of the students using the vouchers are white.

The Heights Coalition, the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education, and Ohio Public Education Partners are all grassroots community groups made up of parents, teachers, and citizens who believe that public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents across the United States are served. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that secures the rights of all students.

How a Fully Refundable Child Tax Credit Would Support Early Childhood Development

In a NY Times opinion piece in early May, as inflation was heating up, two former Secretaries of the Treasury, Robert Rubin and Jacob Lew published a plea to Congress to resurrect what they consider the most important piece of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill: “It is our strong view that Congress should act this year to ease the financial strain on low-income families raising children and that these policies should be paid for in a package that reduces the deficit. This is not just morally right but is also a critical investment in our nation’s economic future. As the White House and Congress negotiate economic legislation, they should prioritize making the child tax credit available to families with low or no earnings through a provision known as refundability and expanding support for child care.”

Rubin and Lew assure us all that, while “critics fear that such measures could increase inflation… those fears are misplaced. The plan the White House and the Senate are discussing will both reduce the deficit and make the important investments for a stronger future. While the families who will benefit spend more of their marginal income… than the wealthy who will be taxed to finance this policy, the total reduction in the federal deficit will lower demand by a greater amount. The proposed legislation would, on net, tamp down inflationary pressure.”

Now with inflation the hottest political issue of the summer, it is unlikely that the fully refundable Child Tax Credit, whose six month, COVID-driven expansion under the American Rescue Plan expired at the end of December 2021, will be restored this year.  What is the opportunity that—largely as a result of Joe Manchin’s opposition—we have lost?

Rubin and Lew explain: “Policymakers expanded the child tax credit for 2021 in last year’s American Rescue Plan and, crucially, made the full credit available to families with low or no taxable earnings, known as full refundability. By making these credits fully accessible to families with the greatest need, the number of children living in poverty fell dramatically. The law also temporarily raised the maximum credit… Before last year’s changes to the child tax credit, the parents of 23 million children received either a partial credit or none at all, because their earnings were too low to qualify for the full credit. This left out or shortchanged about half of Black and Latino children, half of children in rural areas and almost one in four white children. The families who needed the credit the most received the least.  Changes to the credit kept an estimated 3.7 million children out of poverty at the end of last year, and its expiration in January caused child poverty to rise 41 percent….”

To learn why this year’s squandered opportunity is such a catastrophic loss, I urge you to read Lisa Gennetian and Katherine Magnuson’s short, lucid, and impeccably documented report: Three Reasons Why Providing Cash to Families with Children is a Sound Policy Investment.  Gennetian is a professor of early learning policy studies at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  Katherine Magnuson is the Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconson-Madison School of Social Work. This brief report explores what is known about the impact of family poverty on early learning:

“Studies demonstrate, over and over again, that poverty harms children’s development and that providing families with low incomes with financial resources can improve children’s development, including through increased birth weight, improved school achievement, reductions in juvenile crime and psychiatric disorders, and increased earnings and lower risk of heart attacks and strokes in adulthood… The fact that children flourish when their material needs are met and they have nurturing and stimulating relationships with consistent caregivers has fueled public investments in early education, public schools, and parenting programs to ensure children experience quality caregiving. It has also been a rationale for policies that help families with low incomes meet material needs (such as food, health insurance, and housing). While beneficial, these policies and programs to fill specific needs arising from poverty are companions, not substitutes, for cash income.”

There is wide agreement across social and economic research, that expanding the Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable is the most effective and efficient policy to support America’s poorest children. Gennetian and Magnuson explain three reasons why:

Cash enables parents to provide the material goods and caregiving that support children’s healthy development, especially during their earliest years of development… Children need many things to be healthy, including a safe home environment and play spaces that are free from pollution and toxins, as well as regular medical care, good nutrition, and predictable routines. Perhaps most important, children thrive when surrounded by caregivers who are attuned to and responsive to their needs. In the U.S., parents are largely on their own to provide these things. For low-income families, piecing together the needed resources is an ongoing, often exhausting challenge that takes a toll on family well-being… Interactions between children and their caregivers and early environments are strong predictors of many aspects of children’s early skills, including language, emotion regulation, executive function skills, and early academic skills… Providing for children’s care and needs is extremely challenging when employment does not pay enough… (W)ork alone is not enough in the U.S. to eradicate poverty among families with children, even in the context of full-time employment.”

Cash can protect families with children from unexpected expenditures or income losses… Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, income instability was becoming more common among the lowest-income households with children. Fluctuations in income month to month have always been more widespread among low-income households with children compared to those with higher incomes. Some of this instability reflects the types of jobs and labor practices in the low-wage labor market, especially just-in-time scheduling… Income instability alone can be problematic, but it is exacerbated by unexpected expenses and low levels of assets and savings. Families with low incomes regularly face a variety of unplanned costs such as car repairs and medical bills… The combination of very low income and economic instability makes it particularly difficult for children to thrive, not only because their needs may go unmet, but also because of the impact of low income and income instability on their parents. Large or frequent fluctuations in income increase family stress… redirect parent time and attention away from parenting and toward the demands of juggling day-to-day basic needs and disrupt family routines.”

Cash enables parents to act and spend in their children’s best interest. Cash avoids the paternalistic nature of some public benefit programs by empowering parents to invest in their children as they see fit. Cash builds on parents’ existing strengths, resilience, and capacities to meet their and their children’s needs… By empowering parents to invest in their children and their environment as they see fit—and thus showing trust in their parenting and related investment decisions—cash can be a mechanism to improve family life… In dozens of qualitative studies, parents with low incomes have articulated the care they put into how they spend their money. Concerns from some scholars and policymakers that families might misspend cash are not borne out by the evidence.”

The 1996 welfare reform, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which made cash assistance temporary and incentivized parents to get out of the house and work at any job they could find was framed around the idea that poor parents are not responsible. The policies Gennetian and Magnuson describe certainly do not disincentivize work. Instead they consider the needs of the children in families where parents’ work schedules may be irregular and income inadequate and sporadic.

Last week, when the Washington Post‘s Editorial Board spoke to the cash needs of poor parents, the newspaper confronted Joe Manchin’s premise that the parents would very likely waste the money: “There’s no evidence to back this up. In fact there’s more and more data showing that households with kids, especially lower-and moderate-income ones, spent the bulk of the money on the basics: food, housing, and items for schools. The Federal Reserve recently released one of the most definitive reports on how families spent their CTC payments. It shows, yet again, that the money largely went toward meeting basic needs. This was especially true of families earning between $25,000 and $49,999 a year. A third of these families used the money mainly on housing costs (rent, mortgage, and utilities), and 22 percent used it mainly on expenses for kids such as clothing, school supplies, medicines, and maybe a toy.  The most common uses for the money for these families were food, savings, and paying off debt.”

Even in these politically difficult times, the Washington Post Editorial Board presses for action: “We know how to help struggling families with kids. Why isn’t Congress acting?”

What’s Happening with Adoption of Final Rules to Improve Regulation of the Federal Charter Schools Program?

Many of us submitted formal testimony to the U.S. Department of Education in late March, when the Department requested comments on proposed new rules to improve oversight of grants made by the federal Charter Schools Program. I have been, and I assume you may have been, wondering about what will be the final rules the Department adopts and the timeline for adoption of the final rules.

This blog will take a week’s summer vacation. Look for a new post on Tuesday, June 28th.

Libby Stanford recently addressed these questions for Education Week by speaking with Jessica Cardichon, a deputy assistant secretary for policy development.  Also, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum interviewed Roberto Rodriguez, Assistant Education Secretary.

The Timeline for Adoption of Final Rules

We shouldn’t hold our collective breaths. Cardichon and Rodriguez report that the department received over 25,000 comments, which staff are considering.  Barnum quotes Rodriguez: “We are certainly continuing to wade through the many comments that came in… We know we need to finalize something, if it’s going to be applicable for this year’s funding, this summer. That is certainly a goal that we would like to meet… We’re assessing that in real time now, honestly, to determine what’s possible this summer.”

What Are Likely to Be the Department’s Priorities?

First:     Perhaps surprisingly, because it was not explicitly named in the new rules, one priority seems to be reducing the high closure rate for charter schools that have recently received a Charter Schools Program grant. Clearly Department staff are responding to the 2019 report from the Network for Public Education, Asleep at the Wheel, which exposed the outrageous closure rate of charter schools that had received Charter Schools Program funds. Perhaps we should recognize that this concern might have been part of the reason why the Department of Education proposed the rule demanding that each charter school startup application would include a community impact statement.

Education Week‘s Stanford details the problem from Cardichon’s point of view: “Charter school closure rates are a top administration concern.  From 2006 through 2017, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education provided grants to 3,128 schools through the program. But 15 percent of the charter schools that receive funding through the federal program either never open or close before the three-year grant is complete, said Jessica Cardichon.”

Matt Barnum quotes Assistant Secretary Roberto Rodriguez: “(W)e did want to get involved in some of those quality issues. This is in part trying to be responsive to the fact that we know 15% of grantees, as we looked back across the program, either never opened or were closed by the end of the grant period. That’s 930 schools that received over $174 million in federal funding. It’s important to make sure that the stewardship of the program—particularly with respect to accountability and fiscal responsibility—is there.”

Second:     A Departmental priority seems to be ceasing to make grants to small nonprofit charter schools that are fully managed under what are called “sweeps contracts” by for-profit Charter Management Organizations.  Roberto Rodriguez tells Chalkbeat: “There is (an)… objective around addressing for-profit entities that operate charter schools—not entities that might partner with charter schools for services, but entities that might be for-profit operators. Which is something the administration would like to address in this rule—to make sure we are not, from a federal level, supporting dollars that are going to for-profit entities operating charters.”

Education Week‘s Stanford explains: “Schools that plan to contract with for-profit organizations have to describe all of the details of that contract, including the amount of federal funds that would be used to pay for services under the contract, information on the governing board members of the organization, and any conflicts of interest.”

Third:     It would appear that Department staff are listening a bit more to pushback coming from Nina Rees, the president and C.E.O. of the  National Alliance for Public Charter Schools against the Department’s proposed rule to demand a community impact statement in a charter school startup’s grant request. Education Week‘s Stanford explains: “Charter advocates are concerned that the proposed rules will discourage incoming charter schools from pursuing grants, preventing schools that don’t already have substantial outside funding from coming to fruition. Fifty percent of all charter schools rely on the program for their initial funding, Rees said. ‘If the funds are this complicated to access it will dampen the sector’s interest in opening more schools.'”

But Stanford quotes Jessica Cardichon pushing back: “The Education Department has since clarified that overenrollment is one of a number of factors that could demonstrate need. Applicants can include other factors that show a need for the school, such as evidence of demand for specialized instructional approaches. ‘Traditional public schools do the same thing before they build a new school, getting a sense of will they have sufficient students to maintain a certain level of enrollment… The idea that we’re doing something different, we think is a misconception.”

Rodriguez tells Matt Barnum: “The goal here was to try to do more to solicit a needs analysis, just as we do with many other programs across the department that address K-12 education…. One of the currents that we’ve seen in this comment is the worry about burden—the amount of time and effort that it would take to meet some of those requirements.  That’s something we’re looking at and paying close attention to and will really be considering carefully before we finalize any rule… The objective is to have some reflection of community input.”

Summary:     It looks as though it is a possibility that rules will be finalized by summer’s end and that the Department will hold firm on banning grants that would flow to Charter Management Organizations. There may be some easing of specific demands for a startup’s impact analysis and demonstrated collaboration with traditional neighborhood schools. Finally it appears that the Department wants to stop the flow of federal dollars to schools that are so poorly conceptualized that they will never open or will close soon after opening.

Just this week, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris published evidence of the need for stricter oversight of funds when charter school startups are delayed or schools fail to open: “Charter Schools Program grants to the states have a timeline of five years.”  In New York, eight charter schools in New York have filed a lawsuit claiming, “that in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education unfairly pulled promised funds from the schools when it called back unspent funding from a 2011 Charter Schools Program grant.”

Burris responds: “Despite the claim, the 2019 clawback of funds was not only justified but also long overdue… In 2011, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) was given more than $13 million from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)  to disperse as subgrants to charter schools as start-up or expansion funds. At the same time, New York’s big charter chains like Success Academy, Kipp, and Democracy Prep were also getting federal dollars from the Charter Schools Program Charter Management Organization grants. There was so much CSP funding with limited demand that NYSED could not give it all away… (B)y 2016, NYSED should not have continued to make sub-grants. But apparently, it did not stop awarding grants and return the excess funds. It continued to give the federal dollars out.”

This sort of situation is precisely the reason for Assistant Education Secretary Roberto Rodriguez’s statement to Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum: “It’s important to make sure that the stewardship of the program—particularly with respect to accountability and fiscal responsibility—is there.”

Burris’s New York story is the very reason why the new rules proposed by the U.S. Department to tighten up its own program are so urgently needed.

Bloomberg Belittles Public Schools as a Strategy for Expanding School Privatization

On June 3, in an opinion column which appeared in the Washington Post and newspapers across the country, Michael Bloomberg extols privately operated charter schools and scathingly criticizes public education. Bloomberg cherry picks the research he cites and blames “failing” public schools for a massive enrollment collapse during the pandemic when, of course, we don’t yet know how the disruption of COVID-19 will ultimately affect either public school or charter school enrollment.  It would appear that the story of massive charter school growth is coming from the charter school sector’s primary lobby, the National Alliance for Public Charter schools, an organization with an obvious bias.

Bloomberg’s preference for charter schools is not new. In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch described what happened in New York City when Bloomberg, as mayor, appointed Joel Klein, an attorney who had served as the chief prosecutor in a government antitrust case against Microsoft, as New York City’s schools chancellor: “Previous leaders of the school system had opposed charter schools, believing that they would drain away students and money from the regular public schools. The city had only a few of them when Klein took office. He energetically authorized new charter schools, and within a few years the DOE reached the state-legislated cap of fifty charter schools. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg persuaded the legislature and newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer to permit New York City to open an additional fifty charter schools. During his reelection campaign in 2009, he promised to open another one hundred new charter schools, so that by 2013, 100,000 students would be in charters.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 80)

Mike Bloomberg’s support for charter schools has never flagged.  Just two months ago, on April 25, 2022, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced $200 million in grants to charter schools in New York City: “Bloomberg Philanthropies today announced $100 million in support to Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy and $100 million in support to Success Academy, two leading public charter schools in New York City.”

In his recent column, Bloomberg endorses the idea that states and the federal government should expand privately operated charter schools with greater public investment: “Charter schools educate 7% of all public school students, yet they receive less than 1% of total federal spending on K-12 education. As more parents opt out of traditional district schools, that imbalance should be corrected, as charters struggle to afford the teachers they need to serve their growing student populations often in low-income neighborhoods.” Bloomberg neglects the evidence in research like the 2018, Breaking Point study by Gordon Lafer, which showed that the Oakland Unified School District in California loses $57.3 million each year in unrecoverable operating expenses to charter schools located within the district’s boundaries.

Mike Bloomberg further argues that research shows that students in charter schools do much better academically than their public school counterparts.  Not only is there a mass of research showing that charter schools serve fewer disabled students and English language learners, but overall research on student achievement in charter schools shows there is a vast diversity of outcomes across the schools in the charter sector. The Network for Public Education has published a short brief showing that, on the whole, charter schools do no better at serving their students than traditional public schools.

Bloomberg’s support for school privatization has been echoed loudly across the states in recent months. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, PhD, teaches in the College of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. In an important recent column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Siegel-Hawley condemns a new report on the condition of Virginia’s public education, a report demanded by Glenn Youngkin, that state’s new governor in his very first executive order: “The Youngkin administration’s 90-day Virginia Department of Education report, required as part of the governor’s first executive order banning ‘divisive concepts’ in schools, outlines recent testing trends for our students and a blueprint for moving forward. In substance and purpose, the 90-day report harkens back to a damaging 1983 Reagan administration document. A Nation at Risk sounded alarm over the state of the country’s public school system. Presenting test scores without important context like the rapid expansion of educational access for historically un- or underserved groups, the report warned of a ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in our schools… We… could more closely examine the context for and claims made by A Nation at Risk and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 90-day report.  Each was written at the request of leaders committed to privatizing public schools, and each distorted real test trends with inappropriate data comparisons and ahistorical conclusions. What if the goal was not how to best assess public school performance but how to best erode confience in public schools?”

This year during Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia and more broadly in school districts across the country, we have watched a wave of parents mobbing school board meetings with demands that they be allowed to control what their children learn about American history and a list of divisive subjects.  Posted on the website of the Schott Foundation for Public Education is a short video, What’s Behind the Critical Race Theory Panic?, explicitly examining who is behind this year’s parent uprisings. The film exposes the involvement of far right organizations like the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes in resourcing these supposedly spontaneous uprisings with the specific purpose of winning support for a wave of laws in state legislatures to expand school privatization in the form of more tuition vouchers for private schools along with more public investment in privately operated charter schools.

In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen explores the meaning of “the public” and why citizens ought to be prepared to defend against attacks on the public from Mike Bloomberg and all the far-right groups mounting culture war attacks to undermine public education:

“In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around (and we should note, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be private schools or bottled water or privately produced COVID testing kits).  Public control is exercised in different ways, the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods created privately. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)

How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.