School Segregation Driven by Parental Privilege and School Choice

Patrick Wall’s extraordinary examination of an attempt to integrate—racially and economically—two New York City elementary schools, a story in the current issue of The Atlantic, is difficult reading. The difficulty is not that the issues are so complicated but instead that it is hard to face the ugly biases declared openly by parents who invested in New York City real estate only to find they are being zoned out of the exclusive, white, and wealthy neighborhood elementary school they thought they were getting.  It is kind of like reading about Little Rock or Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s.

This is actually a timely article in Donald Trump’s America, where President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are actively promoting school choice. Wall demonstrates all the ways that “privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.”

Wall presents a lot of background about how public schools have become increasingly “highly segregated by both race and income. In 2013-14, the most recent year data are available, more than one in six students attended schools where the vast majority of their classmates were both poor and black or Hispanic—over twice as many as in 2000, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  Wall quotes a study—by Sean Reardon, of Stanford University, Christopher Jencks of Harvard, and Ann Owens at UCLA—demonstrating that “segregation between poor and non-poor students in public schools grew more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2012.  Rising residential segregation by income has fueled that growth, as most children attend their local public schools.  But families can also opt out of their neighborhood school.  Many districts allow parents to apply to transfer programs, magnet and charter schools, or gifted-and-talented programs as alternatives to their nearest public school. Those options are open to any parent, but the most advantaged families are often best equipped to chart a course to their preferred school.”

And in schools where poverty is concentrated, students “are more likely to be held back in ninth grade, kicked out of school, and taught by an inexperienced teacher, and are less likely to be offered critical classes like calculus and physics….” Wall summarizes research from Stanford’s Sean Reardon: “The link between students’ race, their exposure to poverty, and the quality of the schools they attend is what makes segregation harmful to students….”  Wall continues: ” In the largest study of its kind, Reardon analyzed the test-score gap between white students and black and Hispanic students in every school district in the country. He estimated that roughly one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap is due to racial segregation because of the higher poverty rates in schools attended by many black and Hispanic students. ‘School poverty,’ he said, ‘turns out to be a good proxy for the kind of educational opportunities a school can provide.'”

Wall profiles the battle among parents as New York City set out to redistrict an area where one elementary school served the students in a housing project while another served students living in exclusive apartments along the Hudson River. The school defined by its wealth has, over the years, been able to magnify its advantages: “The school, which has won a National Blue Ribbon Award, has such pull among affluent parents that many shop for homes within its boundaries… Once they’re in, parents invest heavily in the school… The parent-teacher association amassed $777,000 last year… The group has funded class trips, theater-workshops, recess monitors, a science teacher, and student laptops… But… (the school’s) abundant resources have led to a shortage of seats.  Even with the building filled above capacity, nearly 100 would-be kindergarteners in the school’s zone had to be placed on a waitlist in 2015.”

What about the poorer school? Our society’s focus on accountability ratings has driven the ruination of the school’s reputation.  Test scores have been low: “Not only were most (students) poor, but nearly one-third had disabilities and almost one-fifth lived in homeless shelters or temporary housing.” And, “In August, after… (a new principal’s) first year… had just ended and her reforms just started, the state branded the school ‘persistently dangerous.’  The label was based on school-reported incidents of student misbehavior, which can range from shoving and bullying to criminal activities.  Some of the incidents dated back to before (the new principal)… arrived.  Teachers said the label was misleading, and pointed to problems with the reporting system (which the state later revamped).  But warranted or not, the designation battered the school’s already weak reputation.”

The battle Wall describes between New York City parents must have been incredibly painful for the parents whose children have hsitorically enrolled in the poorer school, parents who are not really the subject of this article but must have been paying attention as other parents tried to avoid transferring children to the school that serves their own children.  Wall alludes to their pain, quoting one mother: “They say it’s about rezoning… but what they’re worried about is having to integrate with public-housing minority kids.”

Wall summarizes what the wealthier parents are looking for: “The parents wanted a school that was already thriving academically and slush with funding—not one they considered a fixer-upper. The segregation of low-income students of color… had left the school with fewer resources and lower test scores than its neighbors; now privileged parents cited those byproducts of segregation as reasons to avoid the school—thus, maintaining its segregation.”  A state lawmaker representing the New York City neighborhood where the schools are located is quoted about today’s ethos among parents: “Everything’s too competitive. By kindergarten you have to have your kid in ballet and fencing and cooking… It’s too risky now, at least in the eyes of most parents, to sacrifice some years of your child’s education for a greater social good.”

Wall’s story is not entirely pessimistic. A few families being rezoned away from the wealthy school are willing to give the new school a chance, and we know that social change is usually driven by a few leaders.  One parent, impressed with the school’s principal, declared, “Test scores aren’t contagious.”

Wall profiles one of the parents looking to enroll his child in the poorer school: “Among these newcomers, Andrew Chu presented a best-case scenario.  A product manager at a financial-tech firm whose son started pre-K… last fall, he’d joined the school’s leadership team and offered to help start a ‘maker’ program where students could build robots and tinker with 3-D printers.”  With the support of the principal, “Chu began reaching out to MIT professors and a company that sells maker kits… (H)e planned to keep his son… (in the new school) for kindergarten. To him, the entire school was a sort of maker project: A chance to re-imagine what a high-quality education could look like in the 21st century, where student diversity and hands-on learning matter at least as much as test scores and fundraising. ‘I hope I’m not exaggerating,’ he told parents at an open house, ‘but it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really be part of this process.”

Wall examines the court orders and sometimes idealism that drove school integration in the past. He believes that wealthier parents—those with the power to choose—have always been responsible for racial segregation and concentrations of school poverty.  Money has always driven school choice. There is another subtext in Wall’s piece, however, this time about recent public policy. Two decades’ of accountability-driven ranking and rating of schools measured by the yardstick of standardized tests in addition to the kind of branding  he describes—the poor school publicly rated as “persistently-dangerous”—encourage parents to focus on the ratings.  Every time Wall describes wealthy parents visiting the poorer school and talking with the principal and the teachers, the parents are forced to struggle with evidence that classrooms do not confirm the biases they have formed from the ratings assigned. It is especially hard to challenge the ratings, however, because today’s red lining of the poor schools is not, as in the past, merely relegated to real estate marketing, Today rankings and ratings are being assigned ironically by the school school district itself and driven by state and federal policy. Accountability-driven public policy has condemned schools segregated by poverty in a way that discourages desegregation.

Wall concludes: “Today the idea that parents would consider some notion of the common good when deciding on schools can sound quaint; it certainly runs counter to Betsy DeVos’ vision of unrestricted parental choice.”

Educational Justice Is the Community’s Guarantee of the Conditions for Every Child to Participate Fully

My favorite definition of justice in society’s institutions like public schools comes from an ethicist, J. Philip Wogaman, who frames his definition in the theology of Christianity. His definition could as well be contextualized in any of the world’s major religions: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. Ultimately that notion has theological roots. If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is unjust to treat people as though they did not belong. And 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. Emphasis in the original).

In a public speech a few years ago, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson formulate the concept of justice in much the same way: “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.”

In both of these definitions, justice is defined as society’s responsibility for helping those who struggle. Promoters of school choice, on the other hand, assign that responsibility to the family. They defend parents’ right to choose. Believing that no other institution should overstep the rights of the family, supporters of school choice regularly privilege the institution of family over any public institution.

There are concerns and assumptions here, of course. The most obvious concern is whether it is society’s right to protect children from child abuse in the family, but that is not our subject today. What about school choice?  What are the assumptions being made about education by promoters of school choice?  The first assumption is that all children have parents who have the capacity to choose and who are prepared to make the choice. Capacity, of course, is more complicated than just the financial means, which school choice promoters promise in the form of a tuition voucher. Capacity to choose also must include accurate information about the choice and all of its implications. Then there is also the issue of family stability. Does the family have a stable place to live, for example, and do the parents have the time and emotional health to evaluate all the options, make the choice, and ensure that the child can navigate the route to the new school. School choice is a competition that rewards well informed parents with sufficient social capital and the energy and health to pursue choices.

But society bears some responsibility, doesn’t it, for the children whose parents may not have more informaton than the charter school advertisement on the bus or subway—for parents who may not be able to evaluate whether the choices protect their children’s rights—-for parents who suffer from psychiatric illness? What about children in the foster care system?  What about homeless children whose families are likely to suffer from frequent housing displacement?

School systems  employ staff who consider the needs of such children and to try to design programs for them. And through transparent, democratic governance of public schools, it is intended that the public can undertake to protect the rights of the children—rights that private companies with boards meeting in private cannot be required to protect. Programs that serve children with complex needs are likely to be imperfect because the children they are designed to serve each bring their own challenges. Trying to provide for such children with qualified staff is expensive. In our system of public schools, we have collectively undertaken that responsibility and we must continually strive to do a better job.

Here are some recent examples from the press of instances when the provision of public education has proven essential to vulnerable children.

Early in April, Dana Goldstein writing for the NY Times, profiled a mother, Tamiko Walker, who sought a McKay special education voucher in Florida for her child who had been diagnosed with a disability: “Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights. ‘Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA—and I don’t understand why,’ Ms. Walker said.” Goldstein continues: “Federal law requires public school districts to assess the needs of special-education students enrolled in private schools. But districts are not obligated to provide those children with the same services they would receive in a public setting—even if a child’s private school tuition is taxpayer funded through a voucher. Private schools that participate in McKay are not required to demonstrate that they use any type of specialized curriculum to meet disabled children’s needs… The state affidavit that parents sign in order to receive a McKay scholarship, for example, says nothing about forfeiting IDEA rights and services. It also does not explain that parents are responsible for any additional fees a private school may charge on top of a voucher, which can range from $5,000 to $23,000.  The Florida Department of Education website provides other materials with more detail on the legal implications of participating in McKay, but the documents are difficult to find and decipher… Many McKay recipients, it appears, do eventually end up back in the public school system. The average length of time in the program is 3.6 years….”

A second example of the need for a public system of education is Noel Anaya’s extraordinary story of her life in foster care beginning when she was a year old and removed, along with her siblings, from her parents’ care: “For most of our lives, we have been separated from one another, bouncing among different foster families, group homes and shelters, working with a constantly revolving cast of social workers, lawyers and case managers.”  Her foster care placements were in the San Francisco Bay area, Michigan, Idaho, and back to a shelter in Los Gatos, California.  While Anaya describes the social workers and case managers, the public schools she attended remain unmentioned and in the background, but it’s clear that wherever she was placed, she was accepted into the public school that, like all public schools, was required to accept and serve her.  We know this because she earned a high school diploma despite her life of serial disruption.  And graduating from high school in California, she discovered she could access continuing public support: “I was lucky to have a caring social worker and a foster mom who pushed me to sign up for community college courses…. I was also lucky to live in California, where foster kids aren’t forced out of the system when they turn 18.  California is one of 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, that accept federal dollars to extend support until age 21…. Another program for former foster kids set me up with college counselors who helped me plan out my education and get an additional stipend.”  Ms. Anaya is on a path to earn a four year college degree.  What’s may not occur to us as we read this extraordinary story is that an education system based on parental choice would clearly not have met Anaya’s needs.

The final example of the necessary role of public schools is in the challenge of homelessness in New York City, as profiled this week by Elizabeth Harris for the NY Times. Harris simply describes the scope of the problem: “The number of New York City public school students living in homeless shelters has increased in each of the last five years, reaching nearly 33,000 in the 2015-2016 school year, the city’s Independent Budget Office said in a report on Monday. That is 4,000 more students than at any point during the previous academic year, an increase of 15 percent.”  Harris quotes Toya Holness, who describes the huge school district’s efforts to support homeless children: “Students in shelter are among our most vulnerable populations, and with the renewed funding of $10.3 million, we are hiring more social workers through the Bridging the Gap initiative, expanding Afterschool Reading Club, providing admissions supports to improve participation rates, and offering more school-based health services.”  Harris adds: “Early last year, the city started offering yellow bus services to any student in Kindergarten through sixth grade who was living in the shelter system. The city said it now provided this busing to more than 750 schools.”  Although Harris doesn’t even consider school vouchers or privatization—the expansion of parental choice—it is obvious in what she writes that in New York City, parental choice would entirely fail to address the massive needs of families lacking affordable, stable housing. The expansion of yellow bus service is intended to help children stay in their original public school without increasing each child’s disruption when the family may move again and again.

Betsy DeVos, our new U.S. Secretary of Education, relentlessly promotes the rights of parents to make educational choices for their children. Insisting that the public shouldn’t tread on parents’ rights, DeVos focuses insistently on individuals’ right to choose. All doctrines of individualism, however, are philosophically grounded in competition. And in the domain of children’s education, the winners of the race are always the children with the most able and stable parents. Public school districts, on the other hand, are premised on the idea that society will do its best to ensure justice for all—“the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society.”  After all, “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” By providing a system of public schools, society itself makes a commitment to do the lifting.

Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

Student Loan Debacle: What Will Be Response from DeVos Department of Education?

The Obama administration had planned to revamp completely the system by which the U.S. Department of Education administers and collects $1.3 trillion in college loans. The service has been terrible and confusing, say consumer advocates, and some of the contractors have been overcharging borrowers with big fees.

Last week the NY Times editorialized: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is inexplicably backing away from rules that are meant to prevent federal student loan borrowers from being fleeced by companies the government pays to collect the loans and to guide people through the repayment process. On Tuesday, she withdrew a sound Obama administration policy that required the Education Department to take into account the past conduct of loan servicing companies before awarding them lucrative contracts—and to include consumer protections in those contracts as well.”  What this all means is that the federal government, as the enormous provider of loans to help students pay for college, contracts out the servicing of those loans to for-profit companies, which can charge fees for their services. The Obama administration had planned to restructure this process, but the Trump administration has now abandoned the Obama administration’s plan.

The NY Times has been investigating, and here is one of its reports on DeVos’s recent action: “With the stroke of a pen… Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s new education secretary, thrust the future of the government’s system for managing federal student loans into confusion. It was a high-stakes move: Her department administers $1.3 trillion in loans on behalf of nearly 43 million student borrowers.  At issue is which companies will handle the bulk of those loans in the future, and how they will do it. Under the Obama administration, the Education Department was on the verge of selecting a single vendor to build a new system for servicing its student loans, in what was expected to be one of the largest federal contracts outside of the military.”

The NY Times reporters, Stacy Cowley and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, provide the background for what is the complicated and poorly understood operation of federal college loans.  Nine different companies have been billing and collecting payments on student loans, but borrowers have complained about poor service: “The Obama administration sought to replace this labyrinthine system with a single entry point—a sea change in how student loan servicing would work. Instead of dealing directly with private vendors, all federal borrowers would gain access to their accounts through an Education Department portal, with standardized forms and processes.”

The Obama administration’s plan was to choose a single contractor, and the Department had been accepting bids. Three finalist companies had emerged from the bidding competition, Navient, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and a joint proposal from Nelnet and Great Lakes.  A primary condition for the selection of the provider was supposed to be the company’s past performance.

This is an enormously complicated story, and it is unclear to me whether we are headed in a worse or better direction. We must watch closely to see whether the DeVos education department improves oversight. It wasn’t entirely clear, however, that the Obama administration’s plan would have eliminated serious abuses by loan collectors. One of its finalists seems questionable.

It is likely that DeVos and her staff are caving in to pressure from the loan companies’ lobbyists.  Bloomberg reporter Shahien Nasiripour reports: “DeVos formally withdrew the Obama memos. The previous administration’s approach, DeVos said, was inconsistent and full of shortcomings.  She didn’t detail how the moves fell short…. DeVos’s move comes a week after one of the student loan industry’s main lobbies asked for Congress’s  help in delaying or substantially changing the Education Department’s loan servicing plans. In a pair of April 4 letters to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees, the National Council of Higher Education Resources said there were too many unanswered questions….”

But there is also a big problem with one of the companies the Obama administration had chosen as a finalist for the contract as sole loan collector.  Navient has a long history as the collector of sub-prime, disreputable loans made by the company which spun it off in 2014. An earlier investigation by the same two NY Times reporters—Cowley and Silver-Greenberg— surfaced serious problems: “In recent months the student loan giant Navient, which was spun off from Sallie Mae in 2014 and retained nearly all of the company’s loan portfolio, has come under fire for aggressive and sloppy loan collection practices, which led to a set of government lawsuits filed in January. But those accusations have overshadowed broader claims, detailed in two state lawsuits filed by the attorneys general in Illinois and Washington, that Sallie Mae engaged in predatory lending, extending billions of dollars in private loans to students… (loans) that should never have been made in the first place.”

Investopedia explains the history of Sallie Mae—once involved with government student loans, but today a private for-profit: “Sallie Mae is a private lender, so its direct loans are not federal loans. Basically federal student loans consist of money provided by the U.S. government, while private student loans come from entities such as banks and other financial institutions. There are also instances in which private entities work as loan servicers for certain federal loans on behalf of the government… Up until October 13, 2014, Sallie Mae, while generally known as a private lender, worked as a loan servicer for two federal student loans: the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program. On that date, Sallie Mae split into two separate companies, and the portion of the company that was in charge of federal loan servicing became its own company, known as Navient.  From that point forward, Sallie Mae has only originated private student loans.” In 2014, when Sallie Mae spun off Navient—which is also a publicly traded, for-profit—Navient became the largest servicer of federal student loans and one of the nine loan collectors with a contract from the U.S. Department of Education.

Cowley and Silver-Greenberg raise serious concerns about subprime student loans originated by Sallie Mae, loans originated while Sallie Mae was fully aware that students would likely eventually default because the education programs for which students borrowed were not really preparing them for jobs: “New details unsealed last month in the state lawsuits against Navient shed light on how Sallie Mae used private subprime loans—some of which it expected to default at rates as high as 92 percent—as a tool to build its business relationship with colleges and universities across the country.  From the outset, the lender knew that many borrowers would be unable to repay, government lawyers say, but it still made the loans, ensnaring students in debt traps that have dogged them for more than a decade. While these risky loans were a bad deal for students, they were a boon for Sallie Mae. The private loans were—as Sallie Mae itself put it—-a ‘baited hook’ that the lender used to reel in more federally guaranteed loans, according to an internal strategy memo cited in the Illinois lawsuit.”  Remember that before 2014, Sallie Mae itself was a primary servicer of student loans.

Illinois and Washington are now suing Navient—still collecting as Fannie Mae’s spinoff—in an effort to get shady, subprime Sallie Mae loans forgiven: “The attorneys general in Illinois and Washington—backed by a coalition of those in 27 other states, who participated in a three-year investigation of student lending abuses—want those private loans forgiven.  In a pair of cases that could affect hundreds of thousands of borrowers, they have sued Navient. The lawsuits cover private subprime loans made from 2000 to 2009.”  The reporters add: “Navient, which is based in Wilmington, Del., has denied any wrongdoing and is fighting the lawsuits. It does not originate any loans itself, but when it split off from Sallie Mae, it kept most of Sallie Mae’s existing loans. It collects payments from some 12 million people—about one in four student loan borrowers.”

In a 2008 after a regulatory crackdown, according to the NY Times reporters,  Sallie Mae discontinued originating subprime student loans, but, Navient, the company it spun off in 2014, is still continuing to collect  money owed from decades old borrowing by students.  The reporters compare the student loan debacle to the subprime mortgage crisis: “These cases have parallels to the mortgage crisis that helped drive the American economy into recession, both in scope—borrowers in the United states owe $1.4 trillion on student loans—and in the details of the misdeeds claimed.  Working together, the lenders and (mostly for-profit) colleges were preying on a vital part of the American dream….”

Clearly the Obama administration’s effort to redesign loan collection and at the same time increase oversight was a very good thing. We should give the Obama U.S. Department of Education credit for pressuring Sallie Mae to spin off its division that processed government loans from Sallie Mae’s own private, for-profit origination of too-often predatory student loans. At the same time we should suspect that DeVos and her department are stepping back for all the wrong reasons from further regulating the private contractors who collect on student loans. It does seem, however, that Navient, one of the three finalists selected by the Obama education department, would have been the wrong choice to be the federal government’s sole federal student loan collector.

High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

Arizona Expands Privatization of Education Yet Again

Arizona is no stranger to the privatization of education.  It has had charter schools, online charter schools, tuition tax credits and the newest iteration of privatization—Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).  Tuition tax credits and education savings accounts are particular types of school tuition vouchers, by which children are granted tax funded coupons to pay all or more commonly part of private school tuition.  An education savings account program expansion was signed into law late last week by Arizona’s governor.  Now every single child in the state will be eligible, though at this time there are enrollment caps—to be expanded gradually over time— on how many students the state will underwrite each year.  ESAs are basically an experiment in totally portable school funding.

Here is Dana Goldstein describing Arizona’s ESA expansion in the NY Times: “The bill, which the State Legislature passed on Thursday, makes all 1.1 million public school students in Arizona eligible for money from a program that until now was available only to some students, including those with disabilities and those in underperforming schools. Under the law, parents who withdraw their children from public school can use their child’s share of state education funding to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling costs, tutoring and online education, as well as for therapies for the disabled…  Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have similar programs, but they all restrict eligibility to disabled children. That makes the Arizona expansion the broadest to date. Unlike traditional vouchers, in which states pay private schools directly, E.S.A.s allow parents to distribute public dollars for educational expenses.”

For parents an education savings account is like a credit card which parents can use to buy particular services for a child. This puts parents fully in charge of where and how children are educated. Here is how the Network for Public Education explains education savings accounts in a fact sheet that is part of an excellent new new toolkit, School Privatization Explained: “ESAs provide a huge loophole for unaccountable use of public money. Parents who withdraw their children from public schools get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The account comes with a debit card families can use to pay for unaccountable education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, lessons and private therapists and tutors… Most of these (ESA) programs release their funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.”

Goldstein explains the size of Arizona’s monetary awards to parents: “This year, about 3,500 Arizona students, the majority of whom have special needs, are participating in the program.  The average size of an account is $5,700 per year for children without disabilities and $19,000 for children with them.”

Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s education reporter, describes how Arizona’s new ESA enrollment is expected to grow: “Now, all 1.1 million students across the state will be eligible for the money, though not all will be able to enroll. Under a deal negotiated to ensure the legislature’s approval, 5,500 additional students will be able to enroll each year, up to a cap of 30,000 in 2022….” “Critics said it would weaken Arizona’s public schools by siphoning away students and needed funds and would be more likely to subsidize affluent families’ private-school tuition than to help poor children access new opportunities.”  One worry is that, as has happened in other states, once voucher programs get underway, legislatures have raised the caps more quickly than originally intended, a reality that has depleted state education budgets.

There are all sorts of potential problems with ESAs (and other kinds of vouchers), however. Marketing and glossy advertising is always part of a school choice marketplace, and there are what are technically called asymmetries of information. Parents who are given an education credit card may not be prepared to choose reputable schools, to inquire about the credentials of the teachers, or to evaluate the school’s curriculum. Finally, Erin Richards, writing about the Milwaukee voucher program, describes the same kind of self-dealing and fraud in voucher schools that we have seen in disreputable charter schools.

One cannot, however, ever consider the impact of a voucher program from the sole perspective of the children and families who receive the voucher. There are what economists call externalities, the side effects—unanticipated or intentional—of a policy like school privatization. Here is one of the primary realities: when a legislature adds a separate voucher or tax credit or ESA or charter school program, the state has never, to my knowledge, added an extra tax to pay for it. The cost of running the extra system always comes out of the state budget for public schools. And in the case of Arizona, that is a huge problem. At the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black, explains the fiscal realities of Arizona’s expanded ESA program in the context of Arizona school funding: “The funding mechanism and its expected cost to the state is murky… What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s per pupil funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. To make matters worse, it distributes those meager funds unequally. The Education Law Center’s 2017 School Funding Fairness Report grades Arizona’s funding distribution as an ‘F.’…  Arizona spends the least on students who need the most.  That same report also shows that Arizona is doing almost nothing to fix its low funding levels or unequal distribution. Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools… These cold hard facts show that the state is not really interested in supporting adequate and equal education for its students. Thus, it is no surprise the state would double down and make matters worse. If gross inequity and inadequacy in public schools does not bother the state as a general principle, why would robbing those schools of more money be a problem?”

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos champion various voucher programs including the one passed in Arizona last week. While federal cheer-leading may have encouraged legislators in Arizona to expand this program, to date there has not been any federal plan passed or even proposed in Congress to expand the various kinds of school vouchers. Neither has Congress created any federal program to incentivize states to pass or expand voucher schemes.

Trump Administration—Supporting Oversight of For-Profit Colleges?

It is too early in the four-year term of President Donald Trump to be sure of anything or to take a deep breath of relief.  But last month there was one encouraging sign from the Trump Justice Department.  Contrary to what can only be described as excited anticipation by the operators of for-profit colleges of the rollback by Trump’s people of Obama’s regulations, attorneys at the Department of Justice filed a legal brief supporting one of the Obama administration’s most effective rules to reign in the for-profits—a rule that is unpopular across the for-profit sector.

The Trump administration’s legal brief defends what’s known as the gainful employment rule, which has penalized some of the very worst for-profit colleges and trade schools that depend on federal Pell Grants and federally backed loans for the bulk of their revenue but that fail to provide adequate training to enable their graduates to land jobs or pay off their debts. The gainful employment rule is intended to protect student-borrowers from debts they will never be able to pay off and to to prevent a massive loss of tax dollars when borrowers with untenable debts eventually default.

Here is Suzanne Mettler in Degrees of Inequality, her book (published in 2014) on the problems of for-profit colleges.  Mettler describes the gainful employment rule as perhaps the most highly contested of the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down: “In what turned out to be their most controversial proposal, the so-called gainful employment rule, they set out to limit federal student aid to schools that failed to establish a record of positive outcomes for their students, as indicated by measures of their subsequent earnings relative to their student loan debt and by their loan repayment rates… Defenders of for-profit universities champion them as belonging to the private sector, but in recent years as in the past, they receive nearly all of their revenues from the U.S. federal government.”  Mettler documents the percentage of federal funding at fifteen of the largest for-profits: “Notably, these institutions, with only one exception earned between 60.8 and 85.9 percent of their total revenues in 2010 from Title IV of the Higher Education Act, meaning predominantly student loans and Pell grants… Most received an additional 2 to 5 percent from military educational programs, including the post-9/11 GI Bill.  The sum of these federal government funds added up, as a portion of all revenues collected, to a minimum of 65.8 percent for ITT and a maximum of 93.7 percent for Bridgepoint.  In short, the for-profit schools are almost entirely subsidized by government.” (pp. 165-169)  Two of the institutions Mettler describes, Corinthian Colleges and ITT, have been shut down since her book was published.

Last month, the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein described the explosive growth of the for-profits that has made this such an important issue: “Some two million Americans are enrolled in for-profit colleges, up from 400,000 in 2000. Those students, most of them working adults getting short-term certificates, are disproportionately nonwhite and female. They graduate with more debt than students who have attended public and nonprofit institutions, and are more likely to default on their loans. It is taxpayers who are financing the expensive and often academically inferior education that for-profit colleges provide. Ninety-four percent of for-profit students pay tuition with federal student loans.”

Everybody predicted that the Trump administration would relax oversight and allow the invisible hand of the market (subsidized substantially, of course, by the federal government’s grants and loans) to work in the for-profit college sector.

But early this week Shahien Nasiripour of Bloomberg reported a surprise: “In late March, the Trump administration offered a forceful defense of the so-called gainful employment rule, the 2015 regulation that threatens to shut off the spigot of normally free-flowing federal funds that sustain career programs if the typical graduate’s annual loan payments exceed 20 percent of her discretionary income or 8 percent of total earnings.”

The Justice Department filed a legal brief, according to Nasiripour, “on behalf of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,” to respond to a lawsuit by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, who allege that the gainful employment rule should not apply to graduates of beauty schools because beauticians earn cash tips that they tend to under-report.

Nasiripour quotes from the Trump Justice Department’s brief: “The regulations are intended to protect students and taxpayers by providing warnings about programs with relatively high loan debt compared to the earnings their students could hope to achieve after graduating from those programs.”  The brief says the gainful employment rule protects students, “because it would prevent them from taking on debt that they will not be able to repay, and they could more reasonably evaluate whether they would prefer to enroll in programs that have been more successful in enabling their students to find employment that would allow them to repay their loans.”

It is too early in the four-year Trump administration to know whether federal regulators will continue to enforce the oversight rules put in place by the Obama administration to regulate the for-profit colleges.  In Degrees of Inequality, Mettler explains that of all the rules for for-profit colleges, “the gainful employment rule proved most divisive.” (p. 173)  Mettler describes the extensive and lavish lobbying and months of receiving public comments and re-writing that eventually weakened the rule as it had been originally proposed.

We will need to watch whether the Trump administration maintains its support for federal oversight of the for-profit college sector over time or whether the power of money, marketplace ideology, and intense lobbying will once again prevail. Here is Mettler summarizing the situation: “Their names have changed over time—from proprietary or trade schools to career colleges, and then to for-profit universities—but these schools have, consistently, emerged and grown in pursuit of student aid funds from the federal government… A recent study by economists Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Claudia Goldin confirmed that for-profit institutions that were eligible for Title IV funds charged significantly more in tuition—on average 75 percent more—than those that offered similar programs but were not eligible… Not only has the number of dollars invested in campaigns and lobbying escalated sharply, but also—in the case of the for-profits—industry leaders have learned how to use money strategically to construct winning coalitions.”  (pp 186-187)

And the coalition blocking regulation of for-profit colleges has never been entirely partisan.  It has included powerful members of Congress from both political parties.