Bruce Baker’s New Book on School Finance Develops a Scathing Critique of Charter School Expansion

Rutgers University school finance professor, Bruce Baker’s new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, covers the basics—how school finance formulas are supposed to work to ensure that funding for schools is adequate, equitable, and stable.

Baker also carefully refutes some persistent myths—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Baker does an excellent job of demonstrating that far more will be needed for our society appropriately to support school districts segregated not only by race, but also by poverty. The final sections of the book are a little technical. They explain the construction of a more equitable system that would drive enough funding to come closer to what is really needed in school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Baker’s book is especially important for updating a discussion of basic school finance theory to account for today’s realities.  He shows, for example, how the Great Recession undermined adequate and equitable funding of public schools despite that states had formulas in place that were supposed to have protected children and their teachers: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less… Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes, ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably, the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue.” (p. 4)

And for the first time in a school finance book, Baker explores the impact of two decades of charter school expansion on the funding of public schools. Although the conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate reformers has said that competition from independent charter school operators would introduce innovation and thereby stimulate academic improvement in public schools, not enough people have seriously considered the fiscal implications of slicing a fixed school funding pie into more pieces.  Baker examines these fiscal implications of charter school expansion from many perspectives.

Charters are, first, one of those “false promises of cost-free solutions”: “The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations/businesses… Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation (and that there may be technological solutions to human capital costs); that data driven human capital policies can increase efficiency/productivity by improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce. One core element of such reform posits that US schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools…. (T)here is little reason to believe that these magic elixirs will significantly change the productivity/efficiency equation or address issues of equity, adequacy, and equal opportunity.” (pp. 6-7)

Baker also speaks to the philosophical justification frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker addresses Betsy DeVos’s contention that, “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”  Here is Baker’s answer: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim also falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Are charter schools more efficient at improving school achievement measured by test scores and are they fiscally efficient?  “(A) close look at high-profile charters in New York City indicates that their success reflects their access to additional resources and a fairly traditional approach to leveraging them… For each of these major operators… the share of low-income (those who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch ), English language learners, and children with disabilities is lower than for district schools, in some cases quite substantially.  On average, these schools are serving far less needy and thus less costly student populations than are the district schools.”  Baker provides details of major New York City charter networks’ expenditure patterns; what he finds is that the best-funded allocate their instructional expenses in a similar way to traditional public schools: “Collectively, these figures tell a story of high-profile, well-funded CMOs in New York City leveraging their additional resources in three logical and rather traditional ways by hiring more staff per pupil… by paying their teachers more at any given level of experience and degree; and… by paying them more to work longer school hours, days, and years.  In other words, they pay more people for more time.” He concludes: “Researchers, policy makers, pundits, pontificators, and even self-proclaimed thought leaders have yet to conjure some new ‘secret sauce’ or technological innovation that will greatly improve equity, adequacy, and efficiency.  Human resources matter, and equitable and adequate financial resources are necessary for hiring and retaining the teachers and other school staff necessary to achieve equal educational opportunity for all children.”  (pp. 68-79)

Charter schools were originally promised as an incubator for innovation. Are they really innovative?  “While modern charter schooling was conceived by some as a way to spur innovation—try new things, evaluate them, and inform the larger system—studies of the structures and practices of charter schooling find the sector as a whole not to be particularly ‘innovative.’  Analyses by charter advocates at the American Enterprise Institute have found that the dominant form of specialized charter school is the ‘no-excuses model,’ which combines traditional curriculum and direct instruction with strict disciplinary policies and school uniforms, and in some cases extended school days and years.” (p. 68)

Expansion of charter schools undermines equity in a school district: “Expanding the mix of providers and provider types in a common space is more likely to result in increased variations in quality and spending than in convergence toward equity. Private providers have widely varied access to outside resources and thus highly unequal opportunities for ‘revenue enhancement.’ The incentive for school operators is to pursue whatever means necessary to be the preferred school of choice (for the preferred students)—not to spend only what is needed to provide equal opportunity to achieve common outcomes… Much of the expansion of charter schooling occurred during the recession. States added schools while reducing overall funding, making inequitable choices on top of already unequal and inadequate systems… Cursory descriptive analyses, as well as more complex longitudinal models, suggest that states which most expanded their charter sectors are also the states which most reduced their overall effort toward financing public education. This is a disturbing finding in part because charter schools also rely on public financing. So reducing public financing affects negatively both district and charter schools. Also increasing the number of schools, holding enrollment constant, or shifting students from one sector to another creates additional costs….” (pp 157-158) (emphasis in the original)

How has the expansion of school choice undermined traditional public schooling? Here is the myth: “Everyone receives adequate schooling equitably by way of access to great choices,” writes Baker. “But it doesn’t work that way. The ‘best’ choices are often those that can garner additional resources. And the ‘best’ choices will always have limited availability due to numerous constraints on scaling up, including access to supplemental resources. Yet the myth that it might work has arguably fueled even greater systemwide resource deprivation in states that have most expanded choice.  The creation of dual systems of education serving common geographic spaces is further eroding equity and, to an extent, efficiency. Specifically, charter school expansion and citywide choice models, lacking advanced planning and sufficient regulation, complicate equitable resource distribution across schools and children, including access to space and transportation.  Managing equity in a competitive system using alternative models of governance and operations for both day-to-day activities of schooling and for access to and maintenance of capital assets (land, buildings, equipment) is complex, to say the least. Policy makers have managed those complexities poorly and have allowed the dual systems to exacerbate rather than ameliorate inequality.” (p. 136)

Bruce Baker’s critique of the expansion of publicly funded but privately managed charter schools deserves attention from policy makers. Advocates need to study and internalize the details of the argument Baker develops against marketplace school choice in Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.

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More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

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

School Choice Fails to Create Equity and Justice for Our Society’s Poorest Children

Early this week, in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss published an important reflection on Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education. Burris and Ravitch are responding to a major report from the Learning Policy Institute’s Peter Cookson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Patrick Shields, a report which endorses the idea of “portfolio school reform.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Tapestry of American Public Education, promotes a lovely metaphor, a tapestry of school options woven together—open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and specialty schools based on distinct educational models. The Learning Policy Institute declares: “The goal and challenge of school choice is to create a system in which all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible. The central lesson from decades of experience and research is that choice alone does not accomplish this goal.  Simply creating new options does not lead automatically to greater access, quality or equity.”  Here is how the Learning Policy Institute proposes that such fair and equal choice might be accomplished: “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures. Too often, questions related to the number of charters a district should have address school governance preferences, rather than the needs of children… Work to ensure equity and access for all. Expanding choice can increase opportunities, or it can complicate or restrict access to convenient and appropriate opportunities, most often for the neediest students… Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities, and resources to inform decision making for families, communities, and policymakers… Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations sound familiar. They are the same arguments made by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as it describes its theory of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform imagines an amicable, collaborative mix of many different schools: “A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. Portfolio systems place educators directly in charge of their schools, empower parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focus school system leaders—such as school authorizers or those in a district central office—on overseeing school success.”

Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

This rhetoric is all very nice. But the realities on the ground in the portfolio school districts I know fail to embody equity and justice.  I believe it is a pipe dream to promise a great school choice for every child in every neighborhood.  For one thing, there are the political and economic realities, beginning with the operation of power politics which is always part of the mayoral governance that is at the heart of this theory. There is also the unequal access parents have to information, and the unequal political, economic, and social position of parents.  And finally there is the devastating impact of the ongoing expansion of school choice on the traditional public schools in the school districts where charters are proliferating. CRPE calls its governance theory “portfolio school reform.” Many critics instead describe parasitic school reform.

Fortunately Burris and Ravitch promptly offered their critique of the new Learning Policy Institute report: “What concerns us… (is) the report’s insistence that school governance doesn’t matter. The authors deny the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools, the very schools they acknowledge the vast majority want. We know from experience that charter schools and vouchers drain finances and the students they want from the district public schools, causing budget cuts, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the schools that enroll the most children. Yet the report suggests that charter school caps should be removed, which is likely to further destabilize public schools… From the first recommendation of the report: ‘Debates that focus on questions such as how many charters a district should have are focused on adults and their preferences for school governance, rather than on the needs of children.’ This claim is wrong. School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students… Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”

Burris and Ravitch explain that research confirms the fiscal damage caused by charter school expansion. Here is some of that research:  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, the Rutgers University school finance professor Bruce Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “One might characterize this as a parasitic… model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Confirming Baker’s conclusions, in a May 2018, report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how, in California, charter school expansion has been undermining the fiscal capacity of several local school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer continues: “Indeed it is the district’s obligation to serve all children that makes it difficult to close schools in line with failing enrollment… School districts—unlike charter schools—are charged with enabling children to attend nearby neighborhood schools; this too is an obstacle to school closures.  Finally because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

We now also more fully understand that the damage of portfolio school reform reaches deeper into communities and neighborhoods than just the fiscal distress for public school districts. After 14 years, researchers have been able to investigate the meaning of portfolio school reform in Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 portfolio school reform in 2004.  At the end of the school year in May, 2013, fifty traditional neighborhood public schools were shed from the school district’s portfolio of schools—shut down because the District said they were “underutilized” after families experimented with school choice in an ever-growing number of charter schools. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research describes the devastation to neighborhoods and the community mourning that followed the school closures—80 percent in the poorest African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.  In her stunning new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explores the personal responses of children, teachers, and parents to the closure of their schools.

Bruce Baker reflects more theoretically in a brand new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, on our foolishness when we conflate of the expansion of school choice with educational justice: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another.  While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same.  Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker continues, confronting the argument implicit in school choice, that any school exists to satisfy the desires and the needs of the particular families and children doing the choosing: “The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the demands—preferred goods and services—of that community within the constraints of the law. Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Public schools promise access for all children to a stable network of schools—across poor neighborhoods just as public schools are are maintained as a stable network in wealthy communities.  Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who now leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, describes how school choice has undermined this promise in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities:  “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

The public schools are our mutual responsibility through public governance—paid for and operated by government on behalf of he public. We have a lot of work to do to realize this promise for all children.  Bruce Baker describes our responsibility: “More than anything else, our system of public schooling requires renewed emphasis on equitable, adequate, and economically sustainable public financing at a level that will provide all children equal opportunity to achieve the outcomes we, as a society, desire for them.” (p. 31)

Positive Developments for Public Education in Tuesday’s Election

Here are some Tuesday election results which will make a difference for public schools. Look at yesterday’s POLITICO Morning Education for a more complete summary of the election results for candidates who had made public education a priority and for the results of a broad array of education-related ballot issues.

Ballot Issues

Arizona Proposition 305, which would have expanded participation in a controversial Education Savings Account voucher program, failed by a 2:1 margin. The failure of Proposition 305 means that the enrollment cap on Arizona’s controversial neo-vouchers will not be lifted; the program will not be expanding. The Associated Press reports: “Arizona voters have rejected a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program criticized as a move to drain money from public schools and give it to rich parents to fund their kids’ private school tuition.  Proposition 305 was placed on Tuesday’s ballot after educators collected enough signatures to block the 2017 expansion championed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.”

Proposition 305 was designed to block Governor Ducey’s 2017 expansion of a much smaller program.  Ducey’s plan—blocked when Proposition 305 was defeated—would have made all Arizona students eligible for the education debit-card program, but would have capped participation at 30,000.  Even with the cap, public school supporters explained, the vouchers would have further collapsed an already meager state education budget.

Kudos to Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots coalition of educators and parents who collected enough signatures to get Proposition 305 on the ballot and who beat an Americans for Prosperity-funded court challenge to block the measure. A recent state audit confirmed that the program Ducey was trying to expand has been almost a joke. The state’s education department uncovered that the state has been unable to impose even minimal regulation over the supposed “educational” services parents purchased or tried to purchase with their Education Savings Account debit cards.  The Arizona Republic explains: “The Auditor General found some parents used the ESA cards for transactions at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers.  Auditors also found repeated attempts by some parents to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed and can result in getting kicked off the program.  The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents’ spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics, and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house.”

In Maryland, Education Dive reports that voters approved a constitutional amendment to use casino revenue to create a supplemental education fund which is projected to grow to over $500 million by 2023.

In a more discouraging turn of events, however, Education Dive adds that voters in Colorado turned down Initiative 73, which, “would have raised $1.6 billion for a Quality Public Education Fund. The funds would have gone toward teacher salary increases and funding for preschoolers, gifted and talented students, and English learners.”  The measure would have amended the Colorado constitution to increase income taxes for households and corporations.

Education and Governors’ Races

In Wisconsin, after a governor’s race focused on education, the state’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers beat incumbent Scott Walker, who cut taxes and the public education budget in 2011 and who passed a public sector right-to-work law in an effort to undermine teachers’ unions. The Madison Capital Times summarizes Evers’ resume: “Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools.  He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield, and Verona.”

For several years, parents and educators have been organizing across Wisconsin to condemn cuts in public education funding and the diversion of state education dollars to the nation’s oldest private school tuition voucher program.  What began in the 1990s as the Milwaukee Voucher Program has now grown statewide. The Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda. The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.  In recent months activists mounted a nonpartisan campaign that plastered the state with signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools… And I Vote.”

Public education loomed as a central issue in a number of other governors’ races.  In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker triumphed over incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner, the driving force behind the lawsuit that launched the Janus case, aimed at undermining the fiscal capacity of public sector unions—including teachers unions—and recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Rauner has never been a supporter of fair or adequate funding of public schools. In 2017, he vetoed the state budget only to have his veto overridden by the legislature.  Weeks later, he created a crisis at the beginning of the school year by vetoing the school funding formula, again overridden by the legislature.

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, whose education ideas closely match what have been the disastrous tax-cutting, school-starving policies of the previous governor, Sam Brownback.

And in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was elected governor. A member of the American Federation of Teachers and a public school parent, Whitmer opposes the DeVos ideology that has dominated Michigan for too long. Her platform is built on undoing the policies of DeVos-funded Republican administrations.

National Teacher of the Year Elected to Congress

Education Week reports that Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was elected to Congress, representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District.  Her district encompasses Newtown, the site of the 2012 school shooting.  Hayes has deplored the idea of arming teachers: “I worked in a high school with 1,300 children.  I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in that building.  I would never want to have to explain to a parent that I did not lock my desk… or ‘I’m not sure how your child got ahold of my gun.’ ”  Hayes also understands the needs of school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.  She was raised by her grandmother in public housing and was herself a teen mother: “Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences… They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”

What We’ll Need to Watch in Upcoming Months

This post covers only a limited number of major statewide offices.  It will be important to watch what happens across the 50 state legislatures, which were at the center of educators’ efforts to involve themselves in policy making after teachers’ walkouts across several states last spring to protest the collapse of their states’ education budgets. The National Education Association’s Education Votes website reports on the scope of these efforts across state governments: “An analysis by NEA revealed nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats, and an additional 100 educators ran for top state or federal seats in Election 2018.  A bulk of educators come from states that experienced historic #RedForEd walkouts this spring: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. In fact, Oklahoma led the charge with more than 62 educators who were on the general election ballot… The primary focus of NEA’s electoral efforts this election cycle was on state races because education policy is decided by state legislatures and public education funding is a primary responsibility of the state.”

Values that Express Our Idea of Public Education: The Values that Should Steady Us in this Tumultuous Week

This blog, which usually posts Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, will post on neither election day nor the next morning. Look for a new post on Thursday, November 8.

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We have been surrounded by hate crimes this week—in Kentucky and in Pittsburgh and in the bombs mailed to politicians and George Soros. And we are being barraged in the media by the story of migrants coming north to find sanctuary from violence—desperate people who will now be met by thousands of soldiers sent to the border to protect us from these “outsiders.” By contrast, over the centuries, a consensus has continued to grow about our public schools’ inclusive mission—to serve all children in settings that are physically and emotionally safe.

As a foil for what we are watching, hearing and reading in the press, here are some simple principles from experts who have considered the purpose of public education. These statements describe values which I believe most Americans continue to expect our public schools to model.

As you prepare to vote next Tuesday I hope you will steady yourself by reflecting on some of the values the writers quoted here describe.

On the Purpose of Public Education

From Benjamin Barber in An Aristocracy of Everyone: “This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well.  It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (pp. 13-14)

From Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary: “The economic motive has always been a significant factor in the spread of mass education in the United States, and as someone from the working class who has achieved financial mobility from schooling, the importance of the link between education and economic well being is not lost on me… What I want to consider here is how this economic focus blended with the technology of large-scale assessment can restrict our vision of what school ought to be about, the full sweep of growth and development, both for individuals and for a democratic society.  I wonder, then if one of the things people respond to in Lives on the Boundary is the depiction of education as a complex lived experience. Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place in a field laden with feeling—satisfaction or embarrassment, uncertainty, pushing oneself, and a thousand tiny brushes with others.  And it all takes place someplace with its history and culture, its economic and political context—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom.” (pp. 245-247)

On Language, Culture, Immigration and the Public Schools

From Benjamin Barber in A Passion for Democracy:  America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (p. 231)

From Meg Gebhard, Theresa Austin, Sonia Nieto, and Jerri Willett, in “You Can’t Step on Someone Else’s Words,” in The Power of Culture: Teaching Across Language Difference, edited by Zeynep Beykont: “We want teachers to see themselves as cultural mediators by taking leadership roles in critically assessing taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of language, learning, and diversity, particularly as these issues relate to learning English as a world language… (W)e encourage teachers to ask, ‘How do we support and encourage learners who are in the process of becoming bilingual despite practices and attitudes that make it difficult for them to do so?’  Similarly, we encourage teachers to think about how schools need to change to accommodate cultural differences, rather than concentrating on how schools can assimilate students who are culturally different.” (p. 224)

From K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa McCarty, in To Remain an Indian:  “Northern Cheyenne educator Richard Littlebear writes: ‘We cannot leave behind the essence of our being.’  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 also are ruptured. Hence, rights to language are fundamental to collective and personal identity, and efforts to resist language loss cannot be decoupled from larger struggles for personal and communal well-being, self-determination, and cultural survival” (p. 136)

On Protecting Religious Liberty in Public Schools

From The First Amendment Center, in Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy: “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person… Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation…  Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

On Safety in the Public School Classroom

From Mike Rose in School Reform Fails the Test:  “For all of the variation… the classrooms (we visited) shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration.  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

On the Privatization of Public Education

Mike Rose from Possible Lives: “We have… a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. ‘The market is governed by a pricing system,’ writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, ‘that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning… associating, socializing, and helping.’ ”

From Jonathan Kozol in a 2016 Boston Globe commentary, Vote No on Charter Schools: “Slice it any way you want.  Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in their interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state-supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good for… democracy.”

On the Need to Recommit Ourselves to Equity and Justice

From Eve Ewing in Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side:  “(W)hat do school closures and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it… (I)n expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the communities closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

From the late Senator Paul Wellstone in a speech at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 31, 2000: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

What’s Wrong with America’s Schools? David Berliner Blames America’s Failure to Eradicate Child Poverty

Despite lots of evidence about why we shouldn’t use test scores as a measure of school quality, for nearly twenty years, government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have taught people to judge public schools by their standardized test scores. Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an in-depth reflection by David Berliner on what standardized test scores really measure. David Berliner is an expert, a Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State.

Berliner is blunt in his analysis: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

Many of the greatest in-school factors that affect test scores, Berliner believes, are in the drastic funding cuts across the states that last spring’s walkouts by teachers brought to our attention: “Yes, of course, there are in-school problems that need fixing, such as the re-employment of all the social workers, nurses, counselors and school psychologists lost after the recession of 2008.  While all these people are important staff at their schools, we should remember that their skills are particularly needed because of all the problems I just mentioned above.”

The concentration of poverty in particular schools concerns Berliner: “So many of these problems of American education have their start in the tracking of American’s children—but not necessarily by their schools! Our children are tracked into different neighborhoods on the basis of their family’s income, ethnicity, and race. This is where our school problems begin. We seem blind to the fact that housing policies that promote that kind of segregation are educational policies, as well.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids. And throughout rural America there is almost always a ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ neighborhood, or a trailer park area, in which poorer people are expected to live.  And kids in these neighborhoods generally go to schools with the other kids from those neighborhoods.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Berliner emphasizes that teachers are not the key variable causing disparate test scores across schools: “We can demonstrate that fact… by going to America’s heartland, Nebraska.  In a recent year, the poverty rate in a middle school in the Elkhorn school district, near Omaha, was under 3 percent.  In that same year the poverty rate in a middle school in the nearby city of Omaha was about 90 percent.  If you determined the poverty rate for every middle school and correlated that with their achievement scores in reading on the Nebraska State Accountability system (NeSA), you would find that they correlate: -.92. This is an almost perfect prediction!  The higher the poverty rate, the lower the scores… What we are left to wonder about from Nebraska’s data is this: Do all the good teachers and administrators in Nebraska work in the Elkhorn district?  Similarly, we must wonder if all the bad teachers and administrators work in Omaha’s poorest schools. I don’t think so!  It is much more likely to be family income, and all that correlates with income, that determines the standardized achievement test scores in Nebraska and elsewhere.”

Berliner believes test scores are not an accurate measure of school quality and, therefore, not an accurate yardstick by which policy makers should be identifying schools that should be punished because their scores don’t rise.  Punishments imposed these days on schools with low test scores include: ranking and rating schools and publishing the ratings in the newspapers, closing schools, and charterizing schools.  His own state, Arizona, imposes a punishment on its poorest schools and rewards its richest schools: “Despite the irrefutable relationship of poverty to school achievement, some states, like my own, go on to promote an insulting and highly misleading educational policy. We Arizonians grade our schools A-F (based on their test scores).  When we do this, of course, all we have done is judge from the A-F, the kinds of lives that are lived by the majority of the kids at that school… The grading of schools serves the real estate community quite well.  But those grades tell the public nothing about the quality of teaching and caring in a particular school.”

Berliner concludes: “What we have is an amazingly successful system of public education, overall, but one that simultaneously fails too many of our minorities and too many of our poor people.  In my opinion, democracy’s most serious contemporary problem is the fact that minority status and poverty are so highly correlated. What would provide a public-school system that might work for all its attendees?  I’d nominate housing policies that can help integrate various income and racial groups who attend our public schools; policies related to a minimum wage and employer-provided benefits, such that workers can afford decent housing and nutrition, and where workers can expect a decent pension at the end of their working lives; policies that provide access to health care for all; policies that help our police and our courts to be more family-friendly.”  “As the midterm elections draw near, my students asked me to talk a bit about my voting preferences.  I decided to write out my answer to them because my response is lengthy and perhaps a bit unusual… (I)f I can find them, I am only going to vote for those who understand that the root problems of our schools are not in our schools.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This summary is superficial.  Please do read David Berliner’s assessment of America’s education problem in full.

No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “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)