For the Poorest Rust Belt School Districts in 2019, June Is the Cruelest Month

States continue to impose punitive school closures and state takeovers on school districts that serve the poorest children.  While the Ohio Senate tinkers with language to embed a new state takeover plan for struggling school districts into the FY 2020-2021 biennial state budget, Michigan plans to shut down Benton Harbor’s high school before June 30, the date when the state is slated to lose control over this district which Michigan’s state-appointed managers have failed to turn around.

Ohio’s Senate pretends it is eliminating a four-year failed experiment in the state takeover of school districts, in which top-down, state-appointed despots have created chaos by wielding unlimited power to reconstitute schools and shake things up. But the substitute plan (buried in the Ohio Senate’s proposed state budget) merely inserts a local committee into the process and calls the new czar a School Improvement Director instead of a CEO. This new overseer, whose responsibility would be to enforce a plan already reviewed and approved by what would be a new Ohio School Transformation Board, would have the power to replace school administrators; assign employees to schools and approve transfers; hire new employees; define employee job descriptions; establish employee compensation; allocate teacher class loads; conduct employee evaluations; reduce staff; set the school calendar; create the budget; contract services for the district; modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; establish grade configurations of the schools; determine the curriculum; select instructional materials and assessments; set class size; and provide staff professional development. The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.

What is happening in Michigan is also about a state’s imposed governance, but Michigan’s pending action comes much later in the process.  Michigan has been imposing state governance on school districts and municipalities for years now. In Benton Harbor this June, we are watching what happens when years of state control have failed to accomplish what was promised. Michigan’s state takeover has not turned around the schools in the abjectly poor Benton Harbor community.

Wikipedia describes former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: “Richard Dale Snyder (born August 19, 1958) is an American politician, business executive, venture capitalist, lawyer and accountant who served as the 48th governor of Michigan from 2011 to 2019. He is a member of the Republican Party.” Snyder was a businessman-governor who believed tight management practices could make up for the state’s paltry investment in public schools and municipalities. The poisoning of Flint’s drinking water was one result of Snyder’s pressure to cut costs. Now the new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, finds herself ill equipped to address the school crisis in Benton Harbor which has derived from years of misguided policy on state school finance, on school and municipal governance, and on the segregation of the state by economics as well as race.

Governor Snyder put in place a disastrous set of takeovers of poor communities and school districts. He blamed municipal and school district indebtedness on governance and management. For the Detroit News, Jennifer Chambers reviews some of this history: “In 2013, the state dissolved the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools. Several districts have been placed into the hands of emergency managers, including Detroit Public Schools and the districts of Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park now operate as charter districts only. Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Benton Harbor is a unique case because it’s the only Michigan school district under a consent agreement. That agreement goes away June 30, when the state reform office closes. ‘All of the models dealing with finances of districts don’t involve additional state dollars.  They assume it’s management issues and they assume you can resolve it,’ Thiel said.”

Chambers describes what is happening in Benton Harbor this month: “The future of 700 high school students and the fate of a southwest Michigan school district hangs in the balance this week as the people of Benton Harbor push back against a state plan to close the city’s high schools. The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment. And despite the efforts of a turnaround specialist who was ready to move ahead with educational and financial reforms for the next three years under state watch, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the community the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school. Whitmer wants to send the students to primarily white, rural, and more affluent districts to address the district’s $18.3 million debt, give high schoolers access to certified teachers and allow educators to focus on K-8 education. The prospect of disbanding the high school and sending hundreds of black students to finish their education in overwhelmingly white suburbs has put a decidedly racial tinge on what is unfolding as the first crisis of Whitmer’s governorship…  Whitmer came to Benton Harbor last week and told residents that dissolving the district is the alternative to closing the high school, given the district’s financial and academic crisis… Robert Herrera, the state-appointed CEO of Benton Harbor Area Schools, who was one year into a four-year contract to turn around the district, said he was shocked to learn the governor wanted to shut down the high schools, a decision he learned in late May. Herrera resigned from the district on Thursday, which is effective June 30.”

Chambers describes the state’s takeover of Benton Harbor Schools: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor.  In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high schools.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in  the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis.  Chambers explains: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

As a school district serving one of Michigan’s poorest and most racially segregated communities, Benton Harbor represents the problems of the many communities whose troubles have been defined by Governor Snyder and other politicians as management issues—without attention to the state of Michigan’s paltry school funding.  Last February, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized a new in-depth study from Michigan State University: “According to the report, total K-12 education funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015, with 74 percent of that drop caused by declining state support for schools.” Strauss quotes the report: “Michigan ranks dead last among states in total education revenue growth since the passage of Proposal A (in 1994).  After adjusting for inflation, Michigan’s education revenue in 2015 was only 82 percent of the state’s 1995 revenue. No other state is close to a decline of this magnitude. In 48 states, 2015 education revenue was higher, often much higher, than in 1995.  Michigan’s real per-pupil revenues declined by 15 percent over this same period, ranking 48th among the 50 states.”

In Benton Harbor, two hundred people attended a recent meeting when Governor Gretchen Whitmer came to explain her plan to the community.  State officials appear to feel pressured by the expiration of the 2014 consent agreement on June 30, when control of the school district will revert to the local school board.  Chambers reports the state has given the school board an ultimatum. By mid-June, they must to come up with an alternative plan to the closure of the high school or face the state-imposed closure of the school district.  The local school board, however, appears to be intent on regaining local control by delaying any action past the June 30 deadline.

Chambers quotes Joseph Taylor, the school board’s vice president: “This is a bad plan for the community.  It gets rid of a high school…. High schools are the fabric of anyone’s community, and good high schools create good cities.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad opposes the school closure: “It’s a total affront to the community. It’s not just a slap in the face, but to take away the high school would be like taking down our twin towers.”

Chambers quotes  Dadrainana McFall, a 10th grader and captain of the junior varsity girls’ basketball team: “I don’t have anywhere else to go… I have been in Benton Harbor. I have not been anywhere else other than Benton Harbor. This is my hometown. Benton Harbor created me. I don’t want the school to close.”

Last fall, Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist published an extraordinary book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which explores the impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year—many of them concentrated in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing describes widespread community mourning in a Chicago neighborhood where residents experienced school closures very differently than the officials who had the power to make the top-down choices which are shaping the neighborhoods.

In several years of interviews, Ewing listened as people from the Bronzeville community described the loss of their schools as a death: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention.  As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere.  In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Advertisements

One State Sets Out to Rethink Public Oversight of Charter Schools

I am encouraged by the findings, released last Friday, of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Charter School Policy Task Force.

Newsome set up the group to consider recommendations to the Legislature for reining in an out of control charter school sector. He proposed the task force earlier this spring after massive teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland brought attention to the amount of money flowing out of public school budgets into the charter schools whose location and authorization has been pretty much beyond the control of the public school districts where charter school have been able to locate.

EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reminds us that the mere size of California’s charter sector—1,300 charter schools, more than any other state—makes oversight and regulation a poignant issue. One reason the issue of charter school oversight has drawn attention this year is that Governor Gavin Newsom has shown himself willing to consider the need for increased regulation. Former Governor Jerry Brown, himself a founder of charter schools in Oakland, was known to veto charter school oversight laws on the occasion they did reach his desk. Gov. Newsom assigned State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond—elected last November on a pro-public schools platform—to facilitate the Task Force.

The issue of the cost for public school districts of a rapidly expanding charter school sector in California was further elevated a year ago by a report published by In the Public Interest. The report’s author, Oregon economist Gordon Lafer documented very sizeable losses of public dollars to charter schools in three school districts during the 2016-2017 school year: Oakland Unified School District lost $57.3 million; San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million; and Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District lost $19.3 million.

The Task Force released its findings last Friday, June 7. Before one even considers the consensus recommendations and majority recommendations of the Charter School Policy Task Force, however, one must recognize that it is surprising the Task Force report contains any consensus recommendations at all. The Task Force was not made up of academic researchers; neither was it a collection of experts on good government and public finance. It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seems to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.

Several members of the Task Force represent public schools, educators’ professional organizations, and organized labor: the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association; the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate); the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99; the California School Employees Association; the Association of California School Administrators; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 57; the El Dorado County Office of Education, and the San Diego Unified School District.  Four members represent charter school chains or charter school advocacy organizations: the California Charter Schools Association; Green Dot Public Schools California; Aspire Public Schools; and Fortune School of Education.

The Task Force lists a number of consultants from whom its members received input. On the one side, they heard from: The Alameda County Office of Education; the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Department of Education Fiscal Services Division; the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team; the Legislative Analyst’s Office;  and the Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego Unified School districts—along with economist Gordon Lafer.

On the other side, the Task Force members considered the views of the California Charter Authorization Professionals; the California Charter Schools Association; the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division; the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, and Green Dot Charter Schools—along with Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and designer of the theory of Portfolio School Reform—which envisions running a school district like a business portfolio with investments in traditional public and charter schools alike.

Across the divided points of view of the group’s participants and advisers, the Task Force’s members were able to reach consensus on four needed reforms. Although these consensus recommendations don’t seem particularly earth shaking, they do highlight that in California, according to the way things operate right now, a local school district doesn’t have much control at all about who opens a charter school within the boundaries of the district, what kind of school opens, and how much money students carry away from the public schools on the day they exit.

Here are the consensus recommendations: (1) The length of time must be extended from 60 to 90 days for an authorizer to consider a charter schools petition for authorization.  (2) A new statewide entity must be created to develop standards for the authorization and oversight of charter schools.  And the new statewide entity must train authorizers to more carefully investigate the schools they are sponsoring and to increase oversight of schools once they are authorized.  (3) The state must continue to provide a student’s state funding to the public school district for one year after a student transfers to a charter school. (4) Public school boards must be given greater capacity to consider the impact on the public schools when the school board is asked to make a decision to approve or deny a petition for a new charter school.  Further,  the California Department of Education cannot any longer be the sole oversight body for the 39 charter schools currently authorized by the State Board of Education, because the schools are geographically so far apart that the three current staff people have been unable to provide adequate oversight.

Additionally, the California Charter School Task Force reports seven other “proposals discussed” by members of the Task Force and “supported by the majority.”  EdSource‘s John Fensterwald clarifies what this “majority” designation likely really means: “The report includes seven additional recommendations, supported by an unnamed majority of the task force—presumably without some or all of the four charter school-affiliated members—that urge more severe restrictions on charter school growth.”  Here are the seven proposals discussed and supported by the majority:

  1. “There has been growing concern that virtual charter schools are operated without appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students.”  “Enact a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”
  2. “Remove the California State Board of Education from hearing appeals of charter petition denials.”  Currently in California, charter schools turned down by the school board of the district where they are to be located or the County Board of Education can appeal to the State Board of Education to override their rejection at the local level.
  3. “Limit the authorization of new charter schools to local districts with an appeals process that takes place at the County Board of Education only when there was an error by the district governing board.” This provision would increase the local control of the elected board of education in the school district where charters seek to open.
  4. “Prohibit districts from authorizing charter schools located outside district boundaries.”  “Current law allows a charter school to open one site outside of the authorizing district only if the charter school has attempted to locate within the authorizer’s boundaries, but an appropriate site was unavailable.” The Task Force explains that the rule here has not been enforced and that, “such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
  5. “Allow authorizers to consider fiscal impact as part of the authorization process.”  Here the Task Force provides considerable explanation: “Presentations from Oakland,… Los Angeles,… and San Diego Unified School District(s) to the Charter Task Force demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries. In addition to the oft-cited loss of ADA funding, other costs may include, but are not limited to: inability to reduce expenses proportionally without direct harm to student programs and services (utilities, staff, daily maintenance, etc.); obligations to keep schools open and facilities available; increased liability and litigation; disproportionality of special education costs, competition for state, local, and other funds; thorough oversight; and marketing in a newly competitive environment.  Allowing authorizers to consider fiscal impacts of a charter petition enables them to evaluate the impact on the entirety of their local educational system.”
  6. “Establish clear guidelines for use by authorizers and by charter applicants for new charter petitions.”  The Task Force’s report explains: “Current law requires charter petitions to include a description of 16 elements. Beyond these elements, there are no standards that provide guidance on the level of detail an applicant should include. As such, applicants submit charter petitions of varying quality… Clear guidelines, such as rubrics or handbooks, for applicants to follow would standardize the quality of new charter schools.”
  7. “Update Education Code requirements to reflect current state accountability.”

Members of California’s state legislature have been considering a package of bills to increase regulation of the charter school sector. For Capital Public Radio, Ricardo Cano reports that, after the winter’s teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, “In the Democratic-controlled Legislature, proposals to regulate charter schools quickly followed. But many lawmakers made it clear in recent weeks that they wanted the report to factor into their decisions, though they are not bound to take up any of its recommendations. Though a bill to regulate so-called ‘far-flung’ charters has moved easily through the process, another to give districts more authority over charter authorizations and remove appeals at the state and county level, barely made it out of the Assembly, as some lawmakers expressed hesitance in moving forward without the recommendations from the Charter Task Force.  And two others, to cap the number of charters and enact a temporary moratorium on new ones, stalled before coming to a floor vote.”

The two bills still being considered are addressed in the proposals which a majority of the Task Force approved. Cano explains: “For instance, the majority supported prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, a key aim of the ‘far-flung’ charter’ bill, Assembly Bill 1507.” (majority proposal #4)  Cano adds: “A majority of the Task Force also seemed to support some aspects of Assembly Bill 1505, the sweeping proposal that would tighten appeals for denied charters, including prohibiting appeals to the State Board of Education. A majority also supported limiting the authorization of new charter schools to local school districts and limiting appeals to the county education boards.” (majority proposals #2 and #3)

We must further hope that the Task Force’s majority proposal #5—on the damaging fiscal impact of charter school growth on the budgets of the public school districts where charters are located—continues seriously to be considered by the Legislature, by Tony Thurmond, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The reality, considered and agreed on by the majority of the Task Force, that charter schools are operating as fiscal parasites on their host school districts is the very heart of the problem in California and across the states.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Ohio Senate Releases Detailed State School District Takeover Plan

Updated June 13, 2019

You will remember that on May 1, 2019, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers, which have been catastrophic failures in Lorain and Youngstown under HB 70—the law that set up the state seizure of so-called failing school districts. HB70 was fast tracked through the Legislature in 2015 without hearings. Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed CEOs for four years now; East Cleveland has been undergoing state takeover this year.

Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 six weeks ago to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular fashion, by a margin of 83/12.  The House was so intent on ridding the state of top-down state takeovers that its members also included the repeal of HB 70 in the House version of the state budget—HB 166.

Yesterday afternoon, the Ohio Senate released an amended, substitute HB166—the Senate’s proposal for the state budget.  Also released was a detailed 54 page School Transformation Proposal amendment to replace the House’s simple action to undo HB 70.  (The Senate’s School Transformation Proposal begins on p. 14 in the linked amendment.)

The three districts Ohio has already seized with HB 70—and 10 others slated to be taken over in the next two years—are all school districts that serve Ohio’s very poorest children. Last evening, as I plodded through the statutory language in the amendment being considered by the Ohio Senate, I found myself wondering if the people envisioning this laborious, top-down, state takeover plan—a plan that pretends not to be a state takeover—have spent time trying to transform a complex institution like a school in the kind of community where many children arrive in Kindergarten far behind their peers in more affluent communities.  And I wondered why the Senate’s plan relies on so many of the failed “turnaround” strategies of No Child Left Behind—the federal law that imposed imposed a rigid plan for raising test scores and that left an increasing number of American schools with “failing” ratings every year until the law was scrapped when it was itself deemed a failure. No Child Left Behind was a test-and-punish law; the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is also very much a test-and-punish law—at a time when extensive academic research demonstrates that standardized tests are a flawed yardstick for measuring the quality of a school.

We can only hope the Ohio House will determinedly oppose the Senate’s plan and stop it in the Senate-House Conference Committee.

Here is how the Senate’s proposed state takeover would work.

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three years or (under HB 70) been under an Academic Distress Commission, would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.” In other words, the consulting “school improvement organization” would diagnose why this school district has received three years of “F” ratings.
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here is where this plan copies No Child Left Behind—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”
  • There is also a long section on eligibility for EdChoice Vouchers, which I am not covering in this post.

This is the briefest summary of the 54 page, Ohio Senate School Transformation Proposal budget amendment released yesterday.  There will be more details and a deeper exploration of the plan in upcoming days, especially if Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner follows up as she has promised, with hearings at which the public will have the opportunity to provide testimony.

The Pennsylvania education writer, Peter Greene recently commented on such takeover plans as Ohio HB 70—Ohio’s current takeover of the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland in which the districts are operated by a czar chosen by a state-appointed Academic Distress Commission—and the kind of plan proposed in detail yesterday by the Ohio Senate in its proposed budget: “Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them… then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don’t know how to raise test scores, or they just don’t care.  Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty—none of that is on the table.  The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced… then everything will run so much better.”

What is clear from this very brief summary of the Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is that, although the Senate has proposed a state school district takeover plan with more local control over the members of the local School Improvement Commission, and while district and individual school improvement plans would have the input of community stakeholders, this is still a plan that puts all the power in a district School Improvement Director—a czar who can fire the principals and the teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools.  And the district’s School Improvement Director’s power grows in later years if the district fails to show progress.  In the fourth year of no progress, “A new board of education shall be appointed… However, the Director shall retain complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.”

There is even some scary language as we move along through the process of reconstitution: “If at any time there are no longer any schools operated by the district due to reconstitution or other closure of the district’s schools… the school improvement commission shall cease to exist and the school improvement director shall cease to exercise any powers with respect to the district.”  While nobody would probably miss the School Improvement Commission or the School Improvement Director, the community’s children and their parents would likely regret the loss of their public schools.

School Funding On My Mind

The failure of the school tax on the ballot last Tuesday in Los Angeles is the latest troubling story, but school funding has been an undercurrent in the news across the country in recent weeks.

Even in Massachusetts, where public education is relatively well funded, members of the New England Patriots published an op-ed in the Boston Globe to compare and contrast the funding in the schools where they visit. They have been paying attention to the school libraries: “We’ve read stories to elementary school students, sitting on carpeted floors in large libraries filled wall-to-wall with books and colorful seating areas. Yet we’ve also visited schools where we see a very different picture. Two weeks ago, we invited members of the Legislature to join us on a tour of Tracy Elementary School in Lynn. It was clear that Tracy’s principal, staff, and teachers are the school’s heart and soul, doing their best to give these children the best educational experience possible—but they also clearly lack the basic resources necessary to help their students succeed. Unlike at other schools we’ve visited, we didn’t see a dedicated library in Tracy Elementary. We didn’t meet a librarian. There is none… (W)e were shocked when we saw the reading rooms where English learners, along with students with learning disabilities, go to get time with a reading teacher or specialist. The rooms were 50 square feet and had no chairs, forcing up to 10 students at a time to squeeze on the floor to get the support they need… The state’s inequitable funding of education has left districts containing high concentrations of low-income students with smaller budgets than other, more affluent districts, even as these districts must meet a greater level of need from their students.”

Florida’s legislature has recently passed a troubling change to the state’s school finance.  Florida’s new law redirects a portion of locally passed school taxes to privately operated charter schools. In a nuanced and important analysis of the new law’s impact, Jeff Bryant quotes Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, who explains that voters in Palm Beach County recently approved by a 72 percent margin, “$200 million in funding for their schools… a measure that specified increases could be used for teacher raises in traditional public schools and not for funding charter schools.”  However: “A recent law passed by the majority Republican Florida state legislature and signed by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will force local school districts to share portions of their locally appropriated tax money with charter schools, even if those funds are raised for the express purpose of increasing teacher salaries in district operated public schools.”

In Ohio, a new bipartisan school funding plan, introduced with fanfare in March—with the intention it would be included in the Ohio House biennial budget proposal—has sunk into a morass of legislative negotiation and disappeared from the news entirely. The proposed plan was intended to address the following problem: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide. Ohio’s public schools have been victimized by a decade of tax cuts, further reducing the state’s education budget following the 2008 recession.

But this week’s most significant story is the failure of the Los Angeles parcel tax in a special election last Tuesday. District officials put the tax on the ballot after the teachers struck last January to expose the decrepit conditions in their schools, a widespread lack of support staff, huge and unworkable class size, and paltry salaries for teachers and other education professionals.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez captures the message voters seemed to send in Tuesday’s election: “On this, the last week of school before summer break in the Los Angeles Unified School District, voters have sent a loud and clear message to roughly 600,000 students:  Your schools may be crumbling, your libraries may be closed, your class sizes may be unmanageably large, about 90% of you live in poverty, and thousands of you are homeless, but who cares? The Measure EE parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot needed two-thirds approval and didn’t even get 50%. It would have cost the average homeowner about 75 cents a day.  As supporters pointed out, California is in the bottom tier of funding per pupil nationally, and New York City schools spend about $8,000 more per student than L.A. Unified spends. The response from Los Angeles was a shrug.  Actually, it looks like roughly 90% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.”

The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter, Howard Blume describes the usual anti-tax rhetoric produced by the opponents of the school levy whenever such a local tax appears on the ballot.  In Los Angeles the opposition was led by the Chamber of Commerce.  Blume quotes Richard Fisk, a leader from the anti-tax committee: “‘I think the school district is mismanaging how they spend their money and mismanaging how they create a quality education for all their kids,’ said Richard Fisk of Granada Hills, chairman of government affairs for United Chambers of Commerce, based in the San Fernando Valley. Before asking for more money, ‘the district needs to get its house in order both fiscally and academically,’ he said.”

It’s easy to assume that with its thriving economy California ought to be able adequately to fund its public schools. But local school spending remains limited by Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax freeze law; state funding has not made up the difference.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranks the states by their combined state and local funding per-pupil.  California is 18th from the bottom.

After Tuesday’s parcel tax failure in Los Angeles, columnist Steve Lopez interviewed Glenn Sacks, a James Monroe High School social studies teacher who identifies racism and inequality as issues underneath the election results: ” ‘I think as LAUSD has become so heavily minority, so heavily poor… the public feels it doesn’t have a stake in public education anymore, and they’re willing to let conditions deteriorate,’ said Sacks, whose class sizes are as high as 41 students. ‘People say don’t complain about class sizes, deport the illegals, you’re lousy teachers turning out a lousy product, and a lot of this is just nonsense. The kids I teach, I love them, and they learn, and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. But they start out so far behind the white middle-class kids they’re being compared to, inevitably they’re going to look like they’re not succeeding and we’re not succeeding…. I’m amazed that people can’t see through that.”

Lopez continues, commenting on Sacks’ explanation of last Tuesday’s election returns: “Sacks is framing the dark narrative here, the one that says a great deal about race and class in Los Angeles, and about practical and psychic distance between haves and have-nots. Most voters don’t send their kids to L.A. Unified Schools, don’t venture into neighborhoods where the challenge for educators is greatest, and never see firsthand the promise and possibility in the faces of those 600,000 children who could use a little more help. It’s easier to shrug, to vote no, to skip the election altogether and say, sorry, kids, have a nice summer.”

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Charter Schools at a Turning Point: How to Rein In an Out of Control Education Sector

If you read one article about education this week, you should read Jack Schneider’s column from last week’s Washington Post.  If you have already read it, I encourage you to read it again.  Schneider is an education historian at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  In last week’s column, Schneider shows how charter schools have failed to fulfill the promises of their promoters.

Schneider’s analysis is fair and balanced as he notes that charters have a mixed record.  While some are excellent schools that serve children well, “On the whole… charters have failed to live up to their promises.”

Schneider adds that the public is growing more aware of the problems charter school growth has caused for the public school districts where the charters have been located: “The charter school movement is in trouble.  In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’  Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the… runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion.  In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives—the Community and Citywide Education Councils—issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists. After a six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers forced the city’s Board of Education to seek a state moratorium on new L.A. charters, an outcome that reverberated across California and then repeated itself in Oakland.”

“But,” writes Schneider, “much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather then results.”  What were the promises? “The first big promise of the charter movement was, in the words of Barack Obama, that these schools would be ‘incubators of innovation’… The second promise, as George W. Bush put it, was that charters would give ‘families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better.’ In a competitive marketplace, families would no longer be trapped inside the ‘public school monopoly.’… The third promise was that charters would foster competition among schools in a manner that would lead to systemwide improvement.”

But, Schneider shows that charter schools weren’t really innovative: “Consider, for instance, the lack of innovation in the charter sector.  According to a recent report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, for instance, charter schools tend toward a particular set of practices: longer schooldays, comprehensive behavioral policies (governing how students dress, when they can speak and where they can move, enforced by a range of punishments) and a focus on academic achievement.”

And, “Charters have also failed to live up to the hype of freeing families from ‘bad schools.’ In large part, that is because the introduction of charters simply creates an opportunity for choice; it does not ensure the quality of schools.”

Neither has competition driven widespread school improvement in K-12 education across the United States: “Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students.”

For all these reasons, Schneider concludes, “the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel.”

One of the places where support for charters has been unraveling is California, where former Governor Jerry Brown—himself the founder of charter schools in Oakland, vetoed legislation to increase oversight of the charter sector. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, has shown himself more willing to consider expanding regulation of what continues to prove itself an education sector out of control.

Just this week, for example, the San Diego Union Tribune has been reporting in-depth on the indictment of eleven people who operated an online charter school scam in San Diego. This was neither a small nor an inconsequential scandal: “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students… San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said that leaders of the charter schools enrolled thousands of students into their schools, often without their knowledge, and collected millions of dollars in state funds.  Many students were already enrolled in private schools or in youth athletic groups, and the charter school leaders bought their information to claim them as their students….”  The operators of the charter schools claimed to be providing services for the schools through private corporations they owned, “But the two men never provided any services to the charter schools….”

California allows school districts to sponsor charter schools, and it has been reported in the past that tiny elementary school districts have sponsored online or storefront charter schools in strip malls in locations outside their own school districts in order to reap sponsorship and oversight fees from the state to pad their own school district budgets. The Dehesa Elementary School District in San Diego County is one such district. The charter school operators who were indicted, “looked for low-enrollment school districts like Dehesa to authorize their charter schools… because small school districts would likely want to benefit from charter school oversight fees that charters pay to their authorizing districts.” “One of the people indicted last week is Dehesa School District Superintendent Nancy Hauer, “who was indicted for allegedly over-charging charter schools by more than $2 million in oversight fees—which is more than the district’s own payroll budget.”

Researchers in California have also begun calculating the loss from public school district budgets to charter schools.  A year ago, In the Public Interest, a public policy organization in California, published a study by political economist Gordon Lafer which explored the fiscal implications of the unregulated expansion of charter schools for three California school districts—the Oakland Unified School District, the San Diego Unified School District, and the Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District.  When students leave a California public school district, writes Lafer, “all the funding for that student leaves with them while all the costs do not.”

Lafer examines the stranded costs that cannot be managed by public school districts when students leave for charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

In his report last year, Lafer calculated that, “Measured as a per-pupil cost, we estimate the net impact of each student who transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school to be approximately $5,000 in San Diego, $5,700 in Oakland, and $6,600 in the East Side district.

Just two weeks ago, In the Public Interest used the methodology Lafer developed last year to measure the impact of unrestricted charter school growth on the net finances of another school district—the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban district in the East Bay near Oakland.  Here are the findings of the new report: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students. As a result, the district has $978 less in funding for each traditional public student it serves.”

During last winter and into this spring, striking school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland drove home the consequences of California charter schools’ sucking millions of tax dollars out of public school districts. We listened as teachers described their despicable working conditions, the layoffs of desperately needed school nurses, librarians, counselors and social workers, and insultingly low pay that drives many teachers out of the profession. As a result, California’s legislature has been considering four bills to rein in out-of-control charter school growth across the state—a bill to return charter school authorization and oversight to the school districts where they are located; another to cap unregulated growth of charter schools; a third to prevent charter schools from locating outside the district that authorizes them; and a fourth to impose a five-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools.

As I write this blog post, Diane Ravitch reports that the legislature is no longer considering two of those reforms—capping the growth of charter schools and establishing a moratorium on the authorization of new charters.  However, still under consideration are two important reforms—a bill that “gives local school districts the sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the districts’ budget in the approval process,” and a bill to close “a loophole in state law that has let some districts boost their budgets by approving charter schools outside their boundaries.”

In 2009, to qualify for Arne Duncan’s $4.5 billion grant program, the Race to the Top, states had to change their own laws by removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  We are watching as, one-at-a-time, state legislatures grapple with the consequences of a privatized sector gone wild.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

State School Rankings and School Report Cards Drive Racial and Economic Segregation

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, requires states to provide school report cards as an accountability tool.  The promotional materials from the U.S. Department of Education describe state report cards as a resource for parents—a way to help them know the quality of their child’s school. The report cards must include at least the school’s aggregate standardized test scores, and if the school is a secondary school, its graduation rate. Overall grades are not federally required, but many states now assign overall summative ratings. But instead of a valuable resource about the quality of particular public schools, the report cards and the rankings and ratings that frequently accompany them have become racist dog whistles telling parents just which schools serve homogeneous, privileged student populations. Websites like Zillow publish the school ratings as part of real estate advertising.

Even though they are used these days by policy makers for evaluating the quality of public schools, standardized test scores are known to be a poor yardstick for measuring school quality. And high school graduation rates reflect many factors beyond school quality. Research demonstrates that the report cards and test-based accountability in general simply brand schools in the poorest communities—schools that may be doing a good job—as failures. The damage is made more serious when states assign letter grades—“A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, and “F”.   A school’s poor grade makes it easier for the public to condemn the “F” rated school and the community that surrounds it.  Some states have even begun ranking school districts according to their letter grades. Widespread school funding inequity compounds the problem, as wealthy enclaves can raise adequate funding locally, while the poorest school districts remain dependent on state funding, which has fallen precipitously in many places in the decade since the Great Recession

Furman University education professor and blogger about racial injustice in education, Paul Thomas recently published a critique of South Carolina’s school rankings. Thomas quotes South Carolina newspapers bragging about two top-ranked schools—Academic Magnet High, and the elite Brockman Elementary School.  Here is what Thomas discovered when he did some research: “The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index;  for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment)… These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform…. (P)ublic schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.”

Thomas concludes: “Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served.  Race, socioeconomic status, first language and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.  High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.  Therefore, these rankings and labels such as ‘elite’ are gross misrepresentations of school quality… Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.”

Thomas highlights the same alarming consequence of our society’s reliance standardized-test-based school accountability as the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel discuss in a recent column: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

America’s metropolitan areas have become increasingly segregated by family income in the past half century. In 2013, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and Cornell University’s Kendra Bischoff released a report, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, which showed that by 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased economic segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income. Reardon and Bischoff add: “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor. “

I wonder how public policies like test-based school accountability and the rating and ranking of schools and school districts have contributed to these trends.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.