Illinois Senate Overrides Rauner’s School Funding Veto; Will House Save New Equity Plan?

This blog will take a 3 week, end-of-summer break.  Look for a new post on Thursday, September 7.

School finance in somebody else’s state seems like the ultimately irrelevant, boring, and “in-the-weeds” kind of topic. Except that what is happening in Illinois ought to interest us all because it is a microcosm of today’s ideologically driven, rancorous and dangerously divisive state politics.

In Illinois, discord between the General Assembly—both houses dominated by Democrats—and the far-right Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, has left a statewide school funding crisis looming over the beginning of the school year. In July, the legislature overrode Rauner’s veto of the state budget, but then on August 1, Rauner vetoed part of the school funding distribution formula on which the budget was based. Gov. Rauner has the power in Illinois to veto or amend parts of a piece of legislation, and he used his “amendatory veto” on the school funding formula.  Rauner also showed his true political priorities right after the Democratic legislature overrode his budget veto when he fired key officials in the Governor’s office and replaced them with a staff from the Illinois Policy Institute, an ALEC-affiliated, far-right think tank.

But there are new developments this week. On Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate overrode the Governor’s school funding veto. The outcome in Illinois now depends on the House, which begins a special session today to try to resolve the crisis. It is expected that a veto-override will be harder to arrange in the Illinois House.

Here is some background on the school funding crisis threatening the wellbeing of children in Illinois as the 2017-18 school year begins. Until the first week of July, an ideological impasse between Rauner and the legislature had left the state without a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago.  The funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. In June, after Rauner vetoed a state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together on July 6 to override his veto. But the budget stipulated that school districts would not be able to access their state funds until the Governor approved an “evidence-based” school funding formula, passed by both houses of the legislature, but not yet sent to Rauner for his signature.

Then on August 1, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Illinois law permits Rauner to impose what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto”—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner called  “a bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools. (Here is an explanation of some of the complexities of Illinois law and the current school funding mess.”)  After Rauner vetoed parts of the school funding formula, the Chicago Tribune explained: “Rauner’s veto sets the stage for weeks—and potentially months—of uncertainty, kicking the issue back to Democrats who control the General Assembly. The senate now has 15 days to consider the veto, then the House gets another 15 days.”

This past Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate voted, 38-19, to override Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto of the school funding plan. Here is Tina Sfondeles for the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Illinois Senate on Sunday moved quickly to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory veto of a school funding measure he’s declared a Chicago bailout…. The Illinois House has 15 days to act on an override…. State aid payments to school districts were to be sent out on Aug. 10—but the state needs an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula approved before it can release those funds, per an agreement Democratic leaders inserted into a budget package. The vote came a day after the Illinois State Board of Education released an analysis of the veto that found Chicago Public Schools would receive $463 million less in funding this next school year under Rauner’s funding plan than the measure approved by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly.”

The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that the city of Chicago, whose mayor controls the nation’s third largest public school district, has said it would deliver an additional $269 million to the Chicago Public Schools “from the city of Chicago government to balance its $5.79 billion operating budget for the coming year, school officials announced Friday… The $269 million in local funding would be in addition to state money that school officials are hoping will arrive through school-funding legislation that’s been the subject of yet another ongoing political battle in Springfield.”  The Chicago school district has been experiencing a funding crisis for years, closing schools, cutting staff, and borrowing until its bond rating has collapsed. Like other school districts across the state that serve concentrations of very poor children, Chicago has suffered for years from a statewide system that fails to recognize disparities across school districts in local taxing capacity and the enormous needs of school districts in poor areas.

In an interview for Alternet with Jennifer Berkshire, Dusty Rhodes, a reporter for NPR Illinois, explains the history of Illinois’ highly unequal school funding, something legislators tried to address in SB1, the bill that recently suffered Rauner’s amendatory veto: “Really what SB 1 is is a way of quantifying what kind of resources a school needs and coming up with what’s called an adequacy formula for each district.  Our current school funding formula just says,  ‘here’s how much it costs to educate a kid in Illinois: $6,119.’  Period. The current formula is also heavily dependent on property taxes, which means that areas with malls and fancy homes are able to spend considerably more on education. So we have a district that spends $32,000 a year per child and districts that spend $7,000.”

As if we couldn’t read the signs that the school funding fight in Illinois is part of the state-by-state, far-right assault on public services, last week we learned that Governor Rauner has been working with Cardinal Blasé Cupich, who leads Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese, to push for the addition of tuition tax credits, a form of private school vouchers into the school funding mix. Rauner is implying perhaps he’ll compromise on the school formula if the Legislature will only insert private school vouchers into the school funding plan. The program Rauner proposes would start relatively small. The state would grant only $100 million in tuition-tax-credit vouchers the first year, but Rauner’s proposal would allow the private school voucher plan to grow rapidly year-by-year. The plan would make children in poor and middle class families eligible—children in families with income up to $113,775.  Tuition tax credit vouchers would significantly reduce the state’s general fund, of course—the pot of money from which public schools are funded.

Illinois exemplifies statewide politics as described by economist Gordon Lafer. State governments have become the focus of a fifty-state strategy by the far-right: “For three decades, beginning in the Reagan administration, authority over social and economic policy and programs has steadily moved from the federal to state governments. Unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, transportation, education and health care spending…. Fewer than one-quarter of adults are able to name their state senator or representative, and fewer than half even know which party is in the majority… For all practical purposes, these debates take place in a vacuum. Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda on such topics encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Twenty-six states today are now dominated by far-right ideologues in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Others are ideologically fractured.  Illinois, with a Democrat-dominated legislature and a far-right Republican governor, is the site of the kind of battle that is lacking in what are now 26 all-Red states, where, too often, taxes have been quietly slashed, school funding reduced, or vouchers, tuition tax credits or Education Savings Accounts passed without a fight. The far-right continues to transform state governments—through massive corporate lobbying and the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its network of statewide think tanks like the Illinois Policy Institute.

Illinois is the perfect window through which we can watch the implications of this kind of fight.

Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

Early this week, in a column for the Washington Post, Emma Brown wondered: “What should America do about its worst public schools?” Does anybody know?  Brown notes that not one of the plans states are submitting to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, seems to include a solid plan to help the lowest scoring public schools.

Brown explains: Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what president George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets. After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school, or turning over management to state authorities… A decade after the law passed nearly everyone agreed it was broken… Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.”

The new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), keeps the tests but turns the responsibility for school improvement back to the states. Brown adds: “Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances… and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input—not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.” But Brown quotes several people who worry that scores are unlikely to rise under the new law—most notably the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who surmises, “We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale.”

I certainly agree that nothing we’ve tried lately has worked consistently and at scale. The question about whether we know how to support the schools in our poorest communities, however, has been addressed over the years by academic experts and people with a range of experience in the schools that struggle.  It turns out there is widespread consensus about policies we ought to try.  Here are three examples.

First, last November in Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act, William Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center examined the new law’s potential to improve schools: “(T)he new law continues to disaggregate data by race and by wealth (and adds new sub-groups) but shows little promise of remedying the systemic under-resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform policies of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies.  Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”  The report continues: “Above all else, each state must ensure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals…  States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role… Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators…. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity…. States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”   Finally Mathis and Trujillo  recommend that any effective school improvement strategy would include, at the very least, early education, an extended school year and day, de-tracking, class size reduction, and school-community partnerships.

Second, just weeks ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization spoke for communities of color in a report from a year-long task force that has held a series of hearings across the United States. The specific topic of the NAACP’s report is the organization’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools until significant oversight of these schools is increased. But the NAACP’s task force felt compelled to add recommendations to its report about the urgent need to address generations of underfunding and inequality in the schools located in communities of color: “More equitable and adequate funding for all schools serving students of color. Education funding has been inadequate and unequal for students of color for hundreds of years. The United States has one of the most unequal school funding systems of any country in the industrialized world.  Resources are highly unequal across states, across districts, and across schools, and they have declined in many communities over the last decade.  In 36 states, public school funding has not yet returned to pre-2008 levels—before the great recession, and in many states inner city schools have experienced the deepest cuts.  Federal funds have also declined in real dollar terms for both Title I and for special education expenditures over the last decade.”

The NAACP concludes: “Invest in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity to close the achievement gap… To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education, federal, state, and local policies need to sufficiently invest in: (1) incentives that attract and retain fully qualified educators, (2) improvements in instructional quality that include creating challenging and inclusive learning environments; and (3) wraparound  services for young people, including early childhood education, health and mental health services, extended learning time, and social supports.”

Finally, writing a year ago to then-Education Secretary, John B. King about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Vermont State Board of Education criticized what its members anticipated would be the continuation of too much testing and too many sanctions, without any real effort to address the impact of concentrated poverty on the students in the lowest scoring schools: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.  Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”

For all these reasons, on the very topic of ESSA’s potential for improving schools, this blog surmised last Friday that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement under ESSA. Across the states, schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

It turns out that the problem of struggling public schools is not really the lack of knowledge about what to do to begin helping the teachers and students in these schools. Our society instead has a moral problem: widespread lack of public will in the United States to help children trapped by concentrated poverty. We refuse to invest in the services that would enrich the lives of our poorest children and support their public schools. We keep talking instead about a far cheaper strategy: creating private lifeboats to help a few children escape.

How Will the DeVos Department of Education Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.

But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close.  And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.

So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities.  And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals.  It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights.  That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.

Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”

Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”

It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”

Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)

On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious.  Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”

Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious.  And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”

What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.

It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.

My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA.  And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the  Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

Why We Should All Care About the Illinois School Funding Mess—No Matter Where We Live

I confess to breathing a sigh of relief when some other state has a school funding crisis. At least it’s not Ohio (my state) this time!  I have to force myself to remember that political trends at the state level matter. Really, if you think about it, it isn’t important that Betsy DeVos is unlikely to get a federal voucher or tax credit program this year. After all, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has members in every state legislature ready to introduce any of a number of ALEC model bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts.

And then there is something even more basic: school funding. Most of school funding, about 45 percent on average, comes from state budgets, with another 45 percent coming from the taxes raised by local school districts. The federal government invests primarily in Title I to assist school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—about 10 percent of all K-12 school funding.  In many states whose governors are Republican and whose legislatures are dominated by conservative Republican majorities—Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina  and Florida, for example, public school funding has been jeopardized by widespread tax cutting and austerity budgeting.  In these states, state spending on public schools has remained lower than what the state was investing in 2007, before the Great Recession.

Illinois isn’t at the bottom in overall spending, but it is one of the states with the most inequitable school funding formulas in the nation.  It is a divided state whose legislature remains dominated by Democrats but whose current governor, Bruce Rauner adheres to far-right ideology including austerity budgeting.

Until the first week of July, due to an ideological impasse, the state had lacked a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago, and the funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. After Rauner vetoed the state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together to override his veto. But the budget stipulated that school districts would not be able to access their state funds until the Governor approved an “evidence-based” school funding formula, passed by both houses of the legislature, but not yet sent to Rauner for his signature.

Earlier this week, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Rauner has what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto” power—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner has called  “a bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools. (Here is an explanation of some of the complexities of Illinois law and the current school funding mess.”)

What will happen now? The Chicago Tribune explains: “Rauner’s veto sets the stage for weeks—and potentially months—of uncertainty, kicking the issue back to Democrats who control the General Assembly. The Senate now has 15 days to consider the veto, then the House gets another 15 days. If lawmakers don’t agree with the changes or overturn them, the legislation dies and the comptroller’s office will be unable to send schools their state aid payments until a compromise is reached. The first checks are scheduled to be sent (to school districts for the 2017-18 school year) by Aug. 10. If that deadline is missed, it’s unlikely many schools would be unable to open. However, some districts may have to cut back on programs, borrow or tap into reserves.”

Rauner’s amendatory veto is complicated, but here is the Chicago Tribune explaining what it means: “The Republican governor, long a critic of CPS’ leadership and the Chicago Teachers Union, rewrote the measure to strip out more than $200 million in grant money, penalize the district for declining enrollment, and make it appear wealthier in a complex new formula that determines how state school aid is distributed. And while Rauner left in $221 million in CPS pension help, he  did so with a big string attached. In unveiling his amendatory veto, Rauner tapped into a regional divide that has long seen Chicago pitted against the suburbs and Downstate.”

Politifact Illinois refutes Rauner’s analysis and emphasizes the urgent need for a new school funding formula—including money for Chicago Public Schools. Chicago has the largest number and greatest concentration of students in poverty of any school district in Illinois, and the state has not, historically, prioritized equity: “Believe it or not, there is one thing on which Illinois politicians of all stripes have agreed for years: The state’s system for funding public schools largely through local property taxes is woefully unfair.  While low-income districts scramble to provide classroom basics, more affluent districts can afford to create some of the finest educational facilities and programs in the nation… To address this inequity, Rauner last year formed the bipartisan Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. In February, it issued a report recommending an ‘evidence-based’ formula in which financial and academic need would become the main determinant of how state education dollars are distributed. The formula should be applied so that no school district loses funding… a goal only met with an increase in overall state school spending.”

Politifact Illinois concludes: “Rauner’s own Illinois Education Funding Reform Commission…. called for an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula but also recommended a ‘hold harmless’ provision that would ensure no district received less this year than last. By that dictate alone, CPS should not be in line this year for a cut in the size of its block grant… The bill’s Chicago pension component can’t be called a ‘bailout’ or even a perk because it only gives CPS what every other school district already has… Numbers are sure to fly fast and furious as Rauner and lawmakers duke this out in Springfield in the days ahead, but we find Rauner’s generalization that SB 1 is a ‘bailout’ for Chicago schools to be FALSE.”

Illinois and the Chicago Public Schools illustrate today’s rancorous and divisive state-level politics around education.

  • In Chicago, school privatization through rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined enrollment in the public school district, and the Governor believes state aid should drop accordingly, even though research demonstrates that school districts cannot recapture stranded costs.
  • Chicago’s pension crisis dates back to the mid-1990s, when the legislature itself restructured the Chicago Public School District. Fighting over the teacher pensions is part of an acrimonious conflict between the Chicago Teachers Union and Rauner.
  • In Illinois and across the nation, there is little honest political conversation about the desperate challenges posed by concentrated student poverty for underfunded public schools.

Finally Bruce Rauner’s political philosophy is extremist. In early July, after members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of the state budget, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation.

Rauner, like Sam Brownback in Kansas, has promoted government austerity. He is not constructively examining the best strategies by which the state of Illinois could invest in the poorest children and their public schools in Chicago or East St. Louis. I cannot think of one governor in any state who has deeply explored how state government might best be supportive of city school districts where thousands of children live in neighborhoods where poverty is highly concentrated.  Our society’s widening divide by economics overlaid on our divide by race has been examined by academic sociologists but not by politicians.

NAACP Publishes Extraordinary Report from its Task Force on Quality Education: Please Read It!

Yesterday the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, released an extraordinary report from a national Task Force on Quality Education, convened last October by the NAACP’s board of directors.  The Task Force was charged with investigating the operation of charter schools across the states in response to a resolution passed by the NAACP last October that demanded  a moratorium on new charter schools until four conditions are met: that charter schools be subject to the same transparency and accountability as public schools; that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of public school systems; that charters cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate; and that charters “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Soon after appointing the Task Force, the new report explains, the NAACP’s board of directors realized the group must investigate not only the operation of charters but also the broader issue of “the protection of quality public education for all inner-city children.” The resulting Task Force on Quality Education was charged to hold hearings across the country and to report its findings this summer at the national NAACP convention, currently underway, in Baltimore. Hearing sites were seven U.S. cities: New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York.

I encourage you to read and reflect on the entire, and very readable, thirty page report, because even the report’s excellent executive summary cannot convey the authenticity of the comments from testimony across so many very different communities. Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s vice president, is quoted from his own testimony at the Task Force’s Detroit hearing: “Here’s the moral walk: That the same quality and equity that a child would receive in Bloomfield Hills is guaranteed for every child in the city of Detroit… that we insist (on) a system, not hodgepodges of opportunity, but a comprehensive system for all children.”

A short primer on charter schools begins the report with a definition of charter schools: “Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are nearly always privately operated by an appointed board under a written contract (or ‘charter’) with a state, district, or other organization, depending on the state… Charter schools generally have flexibility from many laws and regulations that govern neighborhood public schools, as long as the charter school meets the terms of its charter.”

The report seeks  to be scrupulously fair—with a section on “perceived benefits of charter schools” and another on “perceived problems with charter schools.”  In the section on perceived benefits, charter operators, parents and supporters are quoted telling the Task Force that charters graduate many children who later matriculate to college. Many charter schools, according to their proponents, “take and keep all students as other public schools do.”  Some charters are said to do a very good job serving children living in poverty. The report explains: “As would be expected, charter school advocates and operators believe that their schools offer a strong education, and many argue that it is a better education than many neighborhood public schools.”  The report describes parents, students, and community members who “love their charter school because it provides ‘the best education.'”

But many who came to the Task Force’s hearings testified about problems in particular charter schools. Educators, parents and community members told of even bigger problems in states with poor oversight of charter schools and the states that fail to regulate charter school authorizers.

  • The Task Force heard about problems of access and retention—of exclusionary enrollment and push-out practices particularly for children with special needs. “In New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to bring a lawsuit against the Recovery School District because so many special education students were rejected from all the charter schools they applied to.”  “Witnesses explained that while a charter school may claim to be open to all students, between reserving seats prior to any lottery process, selective enrollment, the use of exclusionary discipline processes, and counseling out of students, it may actually be exclusive.” “Bob Wilson, a member of Journey for Justice from Chicago, Illinois, testified about a local study (which) f0und that Chicago charter school expulsion rates were more than 1,000% higher than those of Chicago Public Schools on a per-pupil basis.”
  • People testified to the Task Force about uneven school quality. “Dr. Earl Watkins, Chair of Mississippi State NAACP Education Committee, explained that under Mississippi Code 372847: No more than 25% of teachers in a charter school in Mississippi may be exempt from state teacher licensure requirements.  Administrators in charter schools in Mississippi do not have to be certified, and can hold only a bachelor’s degree to be a principal in that school… (Compare this to) traditional public schools where the threshold is 5% of staff can teach out of field or not be certified, and principals in public schools in Mississippi must be certified as administrators…”  While proponents of charters brag that charters can be closed for poor quality (unlike traditional public schools), if such schools are closed, “Black students are particularly susceptible to being impacted by school closures… Charter schools are far less stable schooling options for communities than traditional or magnet schools.”  Testifying from Broward County, Florida about the closure of 30 charter schools due to poor quality, a witness explained: “Broward County School District enrolls over 271,000 students and has over 300 schools. Closing 30 schools, 10% of the schools, represents a significant disruption to students’ education and district’s operations.”
  • Lack of accountability and transparency in the charter sector was reported to the Task Force as a serious issue from place to place. The report compares oversight in Tennessee in contrast to Michigan: “The extent to which charter schools are financially accountable and transparent often varies depending upon the strength of individual state charter laws.  For example, according to testimony on Tennessee State charter laws, ‘The schools are required to have audits, they’re required to report on academic achievement, financial management, and organizational facilities every year and report this information to districts and to the state.’ Compare this to Michigan, where according to the Detroit Free Press, ‘Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools. But state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.'”  Poor oversight and accountability are also exemplified by significant variations in charter school staff salaries including charter school operators paid, in one case, a quarter of a million dollars and in another instance half a million dollars per year.  Finally there is all the money spent to lobby for the perpetuation of poor regulation of charters—such as in Massachusetts in November 2016, when out-of-state Wall Street hedge fund managers, the Walton family and dark money PACs spent $25 million to lobby to raise the state’s cap on the authorization of new charters. The pro-charter lobbying frenzy failed to block regulation in this case, but the problem remains in many states.
  • The Task Force reports that it heard about school choice and charters reducing access for children to schools in their own neighborhoods, requiring long commutes in some cities on public transportation: “One of the side-effects of extensive chartering is that children do not have a right to attend school in their neighborhood.  In many communities, all of the neighborhood public schools have closed.  Children may be rejected for admission from nearby charter schools or be unable to attend because nearby charters are full—or there may be no nearby schools at all… In some communities, like Detroit and Memphis, enrollments in neighborhood public schools are decreasing due to smaller populations in these cities and to charter schools enrolling more students.”
  • Then there is the issue of for-profit charters: “Approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools are run by for-profit companies and approximately 15 states allow virtual schools, many of which are operated by for-profit organizations. In some cases the non-profit charter is run by a for-profit management company, to whom the nonprofit pays substantial fees.”

Summarizing concerns raised by witnesses who testified across seven community hearings—accountability issues, concerns about transparency, problems with disparate access for students and disparate standards, and concerns about authorizing and funding—the NAACP Task Force concludes: “Multiple parents and community members described the need for the state or district to govern all schools—traditional and charter—so that there’s one system of democratically-accountable, high-quality schools.  This system would help students and families make sense of the variety of education options and ensure that all schools support student learning.”

Describing the need to replace educational fragmentation with systemic oversight, the Task Force quotes Tonya Allen, President of Detroit’s Skillman Foundation: “Not only is that a disaggregated system, there are 14 different entities that make decisions today about whether you open or close schools, and not one of them are necessarily coordinated.  There’s no mandate on that.  So, what we’ve gone from is basically a school system to what many would say (is) ‘a system of schools,’ except we have no system.  Okay.  So there’s no planning, there’s no support… So basically if you’re a parent and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to choose a school, it’s basic hunger games for you… Families are desperately looking for places, and we have nothing in our community… And so we have a hyper—I mean a hyper-competitive environment where you can have all of these various entities working in one geographic domain… There’s nobody, literally nobody in charge of the children in (the) the city of Detroit.”

The NAACP’s Task Force concludes: (W)hile high quality, accountable, accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

The NAACP’s Task Force makes five excellent recommendations.  I agree with all of them, and I’ll list them here (quoted from the report):

  1. Provide more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving students of color.
  2. Invest productively in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity and achievement gaps.
  3. Develop and enforce robust charter school accountability measures: (a) create and enforce a rigorous charter school authorizing and renewal process; (b) create and enforce a common accountability system; (c) monitor and require charter schools to admit and retain all students; (d) create and monitor transparent disciplinary guidelines that meet ongoing learning needs and prevent push out; (e) require charter schools to hire certified teachers.
  4. Require fiscal transparency and equity regarding the sources of revenues and how those resources are allocated.
  5. Eliminate for-profit charter schools.

I believe the primary importance of this report is in the moving and compelling narrative it creates of a disastrously uncoordinated and poorly regulated experiment that has hurt poor children and their families—especially black and brown children in the big cities where the charter experiment has been focused. The NAACP’s Task Force has significantly shaped a coherent narrative when nobody else has succeeded—connecting the dots across the 43 states where charter schools operate under 43 state laws.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Leads Ideological Fight Against School Funding Fairness

In an ugly special legislative session in early July, Illinois finally enacted a budget when the Legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto. It is the first budget the state has had since Rauner was elected governor over two years ago. But the wrangling between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democratically dominated Illinois Legislature continues.  On Monday, Rauner called another special session of the Illinois Legislature—beginning today—to resolve an impasse on school funding that threatens to hold up money necessary to start the upcoming school year.

Although the majority-Democratic legislature overrode Rauner’s veto to pass the budget, school districts cannot access their state funds because the formula to determine the distribution of state funds for school districts remains blocked.  The legislature has passed a new “evidence-based” school funding formula intended to equalize school funding, but, through a legal technicality, has not yet sent the budget to Rauner.  Legislative leaders fear Rauner will use what Illinois calls his power of “amendatory veto.”

Parsing out what’s going on in Illinois is confusing.  Here is a summary of what’s been happening and what it means.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ILLINOIS SCHOOL FUNDING?   The Education Law Center’s National Report Card on School Funding identifies Illinois as fourth from the bottom of all the states in school funding fairness. The only states that do a worse job of using state funds to compensate for notoriously uneven local capacity to raise school taxes are Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota.  For WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station: Amanda Vinicky explains: “An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.”

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE-BASED SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   This is the substance of a new law, Senate Bill 1, passed by both houses of the Illinois Legislature but not yet signed into law by Governor Rauner.  John O’Connor and Sophia Tareen, writing for the Associated Press explain: “The legislation would revise the way the schools receive state aid for the first time in two decades. The method funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year.  That includes a $250 million-a-year grant for the financially-troubled Chicago schools for programs funded separately in other districts and a requirement that the state pick up the annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.”

THE POLITICS   Illinois is a split state with both houses of the legislature dominated by Democrats but a very conservative Republican as governor. After members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of a state budget that was years overdue, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation and distribute model bills to be introduced in legislatures across the fifty states.

WHAT IS AN “AMENDATORY VETO”?   O’Connor and Tareen explain: “Illinois is one of just seven states that give its governor the power of amendatory veto.  It allows a governor to return legislation with ‘specific recommendations for change.’ But according to the state Supreme Court, that does not include changing a bill’s ‘fundamental purpose’ or making ‘substantial or expansive’ changes.” Governor Rauner has threatened to use his power of amendatory veto, which is why the bill has not yet been sent to Rauner.

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL WAS PASSED ON MAY 31. HOW COME IT HASN’T REACHED THE GOVERNOR’S DESK?   Vinicky at WTTW explains the mechanics of the delay: “Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a ‘motion to reconsider’ to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last.”

SO WHY IS GOV. RAUNER THREATENING TO VETO AND CHANGE PART OF THE SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN?   The problem is that the Legislature has allocated money to help the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which have been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Chicago Public Schools is the state’s largest school district, and it serves an enormous number of children who need services due to concentrated poverty, special education programs, and programs for English language instruction. And there is a two-decades’ old pension crisis. The state contributes to the pension system for all of the state’s other school districts, but Chicago’s pension system is on its own.  Earlier this week, Reuters summarized: “Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system. The governor called the CPS pension funding ‘a poison pill’ in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

Heather Cherone for Chicago’s DNA Info explains further: “Rauner again said he plans to issue an amendatory veto that would remove the $300 million the legislation would send to CPS to cover current and past-due pension payments, which amounts to a ‘bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system’ that the governor’s office said would take ‘away critical resources from school districts across the state.'”

Partly due to lack of equity in the state’s funding system, the Chicago school district has depended on borrowing for years, most notoriously from its teachers’ pension fund. The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Maureen Kelleher, writing for the Chicago Reporter, explains that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.” And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district. In the summer of 2015, Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board castigates Rauner for pitting “Chicago against the rest of Illinois”—Chicago that educates 19 percent of the states public school students while, even under the new plan, receiving “only 16 percent of the state’s funding for education.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown describes the common ground achieved between school leaders and advocates in Chicago and in smaller communities downstate as the Legislature developed the plan: “They found common ground with Chicago Public Schools in developing a formula that benefits both by recognizing their shared challenges—notably high percentages of students from poor families who are more costly to educate.” Brown profiles small-town school superintendents  “who have been holding town forums to explain the benefits of Senate Bill 1 to their residents,”  including Rolf Sivertsen, the “superintendent of Canton Union School District 66, about 30 miles west of Peoria. His district has 2,600 students in grades pre-k through 12th. Sixty percent of these students come from low-income families.  The school district would receive $760,000 more if Senate Bill 1 becomes law.”

It appears that most people in in Illinois and the legislators who represent them want to move forward with an unbiased system of funding schools, including fairness for the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools. Bruce Rauner’s ideological rigidity is blocking an equitable solution.

What Can Betsy DeVos Be Thinking?

What can she be thinking?  Can she be thinking at all?  That is what I wondered when I read what Betsy DeVos told the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last Thursday.

Here is what our U.S. Secretary of Education said: “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.” She continued: “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.'”

In her ALEC speech, DeVos continued, explaining her disagreement with the American Federation of Teachers: “I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”

DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.'”

Finally, DeVos summed up what she learned from Margaret Thatcher: “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.”

I guess DeVos has now explained what she meant in 2015 when she declared, “Government really sucks.”  I guess she believes the common good will magically arrive when all this self-seeking is aggregated.

I have a lot of problems with this kind of magical thinking. First, the idea is that government ought to get out of the way, but at the same time, there is the assumption that government ought to pay for it all with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts on top of the traditional schools.  Who is going to want to pay taxes for all of this and why should we?  If individuals are on their own, maybe individuals and families ought to take care of it.

Except that poor families, and families in marginalized groups, and families whose children are severely handicapped, and families whose children need to learn English, and families who live in isolated rural areas and families who live in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities are going to struggle to find places where they can go to find the exact kind of education their children need.  They will struggle to discern the truth through the glitzy advertising, and there may not be good choices in every town and every neighborhood, without the government schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.  And many of these families may not be able to afford it, because they won’t have enough money to add to the voucher to pay for many of the privatized alternatives. And finally, some of the privatized schools (that are not required by government to serve all children) will turn away or push out their children, especially the children who require expensive special services and the children who are likely to post low test scores.

Betsy DeVos demonstrates an amazing cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t billionaires like herself. Although people like DeVos may be able to afford any of a wide range of choices, most parents in our country—about 90 percent of them—send their children to the schools the government has provided—schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.

The most serious problem, however, with Betsy DeVos’s libertarian, government-free fantasy is that she seems unaware that government is the institution that protects children’s rights by law and ensures, by law, that education is provided for all children in our country.  High school students in civics class and immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam learn about the three branches of our government—defined in each case in relation to the concept of a government by law. The legislative branch makes the laws; the executive branch administers the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws.

The law is what ensures that public schools serve all those groups of parents that we listed—poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. The law also protects the rights of individuals from injustice committed in or by any of these institutions.

When society is failing to fulfill its obligation according to the law, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  The law provides the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we can all demand better services for vulnerable families who have been left out.  Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954.  In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.

Justice is never about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as together they form a society. Justice also involves the balance of power among the institutions that societies create. In the tweet Betsy DeVos quoted in her speech, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) described the need to protect our system of education. The AFT recognizes the need to protect institutional and structural justice, not merely the choices of individuals. Why?  History tells us that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget other people’s children.

Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”  (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)

Last year, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a book that covers the lesson too many Americans have forgotten from their civics classes about the role of government.  Here is how they begin: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1).

Hacker and Pierson continue, quoting James Madison: “There never was a Government without force. What is the meaning of government?  An institution to make people do their duty.  A Government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of Government, or rather no Government at all.”  (American Amnesia, pp. 1-2)

And these political scientists conclude: “We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.’  At a time when we face serious challenges that can be addressed only through a stronger, more effective government—a strained middle class, a weakened system for generating life-improving innovation, a dangerously warming planet—we ignore what both our history and basic economic theory suggest: We need a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government rather than the jealous rivalry that so many misperceive—and in that misperception, help foster.  Above all, we need a government strong and capable enough to rise above narrow private interests and carry out long-term courses of action on behalf of broader concerns.” American Amnesia, p. 2, emphasis in the original)

It may not be possible to silence Betsy DeVos and her long rant against the government system she is supposed to be administering.  At the very least, however, those of us who prize America’s institution of public education must just as insistently reject her foolishness.