MGT Consultants: Profiting from the School Crisis in Gary, Indiana and Taking Over Three Colorado School Districts

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.

In a blog post on Monday, Diane Ravitch warned: “Colorado be very afraid.”  She is commenting on a decision by the state board of education in Colorado to hire a for-profit education management company to take over three school districts which Colorado’s state board has deemed “troubled.”

Ravitch is writing about an article from Sentinel Colorado, which explains: “As Colorado school districts struggle and fail to raise student test scores in schools with entrenched problems, they’re turning to private companies to fix public schools, for millions of dollars. Some critics question whether at least one of those private companies is qualified for the job based on their track record in another state and their close ties to what some say are anti-public schools alliances.”  The three districts are to be taken over by Florida’s MGT Consulting.

Sentinel Colorado‘s Grant Singer explains: “Leaders of the Florida-based MGT say they specialize in allocating public money more effectively while improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom and school culture. Its management process includes sub-contracting areas of school work to other companies, and it boasts completing over 10,000 projects in many states and abroad over several decades… MGT’s current chief executive officer also co-founded a consulting and lobbying firm tapped into a national network of for-profit education institutions, Republican education reformers, the testing industry and charter schools. That’s part of what draws controversy as public school academia question the motives of a company headed by pro-school voucher officials working to save failing public schools—for profit.”

Colorado state school board members praised MGT’s record in the so-called turnaround of the only whole school district it has managed—for the past two years—in Gary, Indiana.  The fact that MGT Consulting, a for-profit, was praised for work in Gary caught my eye. I have been to Gary, just as I have been to Detroit, whose public schools have shared some problems with Gary’s. Detroit’s school district was assigned a state emergency fiscal manager by former Governor Rick Snyder; in fact Detroit’s school district was assigned an emergency manager named Darnell Earley after he left Flint, where, as municipal emergency fiscal manager, he had permitted the poisoning of the city’s water supply. Fortunately Detroit’s schools have been turned back to the democratically elected local school board, which hired a professional educator, Dr. Nikolai Vitti.  And I have been to the cities in Ohio now in state takeover, and being operated by appointed Academic Distress Commissions. I am thinking of Youngstown, which in four years under an Academic Distress Commission and appointed CEO, has not turned around. I am thinking of Lorain, where outright chaos has ensued under an Academic Distress Commission’s appointed CEO, David Hardy. And I am thinking of East Cleveland, whose schools are just beginning the state takeover process, and ten other Ohio school districts—including Dayton and Toledo—being threatened with state takeover.

All of these Rust Belt cities and their school districts are characterized by economic collapse. They are industrial cities where factories have closed and workers moved away to seek employment elsewhere. When industry collapses, the property tax base—the foundation of the local contribution of school funding—evaporates, and as workers lose jobs or leave, local income tax revenue collapses as well.

The northwest Indiana reporter for WBEZ News in Chicago describes what happened in Gary and how economic collapse has affected the city’s public schools. Writing in February of 2017, WBEZ’s Michael Puente explained: “In December, the school board voted to close Jefferson and two other school district facilities at the end of the academic year to save money.  It’s just the latest cost-cutting effort for a district drowning in red ink. By June, Gary’s accumulated debt is expected to reach $101 million.  In the last two years, Gary has had to close six buildings amid declining enrollment, dwindling tax revenue and competition from public charter schools.  The school system is struggling to make payroll each month. It delayed checks to 700 employees, mostly teachers, in November.  March is also likely to be a problem.” After describing faltering attempts by members of the Indiana Legislature to pass legislation to assist Gary’s schools, Puente adds: “But none will fix two of Steel City’s greatest problems: industry decline and population loss.  Since 1970, some 100,000 residents—almost half the city’s population—have left Gary. Only about 77,000 remain… Gary has been bleeding jobs, especially at the steel mills, for decades. Big employers like U.S. Steel are still around, but its workforce has shrunk over the years. And, the huge steel facility can’t produce fat property tax checks for the local school system because a decade-old state property tax cap limits how much the Gary schools can collect.”

In July 2017, the state took over the school district in Gary and turned the schools over to a private, for-profit management company: MGT Consultants. MGT hired Peggy Hinkley, a retired school superintendent to run the schools, but she resigned a little more than a year later. The Post-Tribune‘s Carole Carlson describes Hinkley’s tenure: “Hinkley served 14 months and ruffled the feathers of some elected officials who criticized her decisions, especially the closing of the Wirt-Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts. When Wirt-Emerson closed in June (2018), it left the district with just one high school, the West Side Leadership Academy. It stoked fears of a continuing exodus of students who would leave for charter schools or other districts… Under Hinckley, Gary reached a deal resolving $8.4 million in back payroll taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS forgave a large portion of the debt, leaving the district with a $320,000 payment. The freeing up of the liens on buildings allowed Hinckley to list 33 vacant schools and properties for sale.  By November, the district had accepted five offers, amounting to $480,000. More sales are still being weighed. In all, Hinckley erased about $6 million of the district’s $100,000 million in long-term debts and reduced its monthly deficit from about $1.8 million to $1.3 million… Academically, all seven elementary schools received Fs on state report cards this year.”

Clearly, in Gary, Indiana, MGT Consultants has not miraculously achieved the kind of quick school district turnaround Colorado’s state school board bragged about when it contracted with MGT to take over three school districts.

And in the background there is also a troubling possible conflict of interest. You may remember that Tony Bennett was the elected state school superintendent in Indiana back when Mitch Daniels was the far-right Republican Governor. Tony Bennett left Indiana in 2013 to go to Florida, where he became the Florida school commissioner, but he resigned (also) in 2013, when it was discovered that, as Indiana’s state superintendent, he had secretly raised the state’s rating of a charter school whose operator was a mega-donor to Indiana’s Republican campaign coffers.

After he left Florida, Tony Bennett became a private consultant and, according to a second article by Carole Carlson of the Post-Tribune, “a partner in the Strategos Group, a Florida company, which acquired MGT Consulting three years ago.  As a result of the acquisition, Bennett became a member of MGT’s board of directors.”

The relevant issue of Bennett’s serving on MGT’s board when the state of Indiana hired MGT to run the Gary Schools is that Bennett worked assiduously with then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to expand Indiana’s statewide private school tuition voucher program and to enable more charter schools—a vigorous school privatization venture that has further undermined enrollment in and funding for the public schools in Gary.  Carlson explains that back when Tony Bennett was the state school superintendent in Indiana, “then Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett led an education reform overhaul that expanded charter schools and launched a vigorous voucher program that gave tax dollars to private schools.  Critics say those policies nudged Gary on its downward spiral.”

Chalkbeat Colorado‘s Yesenia Robles describes the cozy, school-reformer-privatizer connections that may have contributed to the hiring of MGT Consultants to run Gary’s schools.  After all, Colorado is claiming it has chosen MGT Consultants to run three different school districts based on the company’s track record in Gary. Robles doesn’t draw any firm conclusions about the red flags this ought to to have raised among officials in Colorado who hired MGT to manage the three school districts the state has taken over, but she does raise the red flags: “In Gary, the state ordered an emergency manager to come in not only for academic problems, but because the enrollment decline and fiscal management problems landed the district deep in debt. MGT took over the responsibilities of the superintendent and the school board, at the state’s request and reports directly to state officials. The work has been controversial. Some lawmakers called for removing the firm when it was discovered that Tony Bennett, who was state superintendent in Indiana from 2008-2013, is a partner in the Strategos Group, which acquired MGT in 2015. Lawmakers argued that the policies Bennett rolled out in his time as state superintendent contributed to Gary’s financial problems that led the state to require an external manager.”

The Post-Tribune‘s Carlson reports that as of the end of 2018, MGT Consulants’ contract to manage Gary’s school district has reached $10 million.  MGT Consultants stands to make big profits in Colorado as well. Sentinel Colorado‘s Stringer provides details—for example, in MGT’s contract to manage the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City: “MGT’s work in Commerce City will net almost $8.4 million plus up to $1.7 million in incentives for improving the district scores and ratings…. In the first two years of its contract, the group can earn from $300,000 to $400,000 each year for improving test scores at different grade levels and for meeting achievement marks. In the last two years, MGT could make up to $400,000 each year for earning the district and individual schools gains in state ratings, even for bumps to levels below meting standards. The Commerce City district does not have a superintendent nor a chief financial officer and will likely not fill both positions… MGT will manage the more than $150 million in district spending, almost all state and federal dollars.”

My own experience has not familiarized me with the school districts which have been turned over by the state of Colorado to the for-profit MGT Consultants. But when I read about state legislatures and politicians in Rust Belt states taking over school districts and appointing emergency fiscal managers and academic distress commissions and CEOs with unlimited power to make changes without consulting locally elected officials or engaging the local community, I wonder why the democratic process seems always to be abridged in the school districts which serve the poorest children of color. In Gary, I wonder why a for-profit consultant is raking in millions of dollars to cover for the state’s failure to help the school district after the surrounding economy collapsed. The economic tragedy in a place like Youngstown or Lorain or Benton Harbor or Dayton or Gary demands the active engagement of state and local government officials on behalf of the public good and the welfare of the children.

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Ohio’s New State Budget Is a School Voucher Expansion Bonanza at the Expense of Public Education

Ohio has five voucher programs.  Two of them are for students with autism and other disabilities, and their enrollment depends on the incidence of these conditions and parents’ awareness of the availability of voucher funds to pay for private programs.  A third voucher program—the Cleveland Scholarship Program—one of the oldest in the country—is for students in Cleveland.

This blog post will focus on the last two—EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion.  They are statewide Ohio school voucher programs designed specifically, according to the Republican lawmakers who have designed and promoted these programs, to enable students to escape so-called “failing” schools.  It is important to remember that those same legislators have failed adequately to fund the public schools in Ohio’s poorest school districts, and those same legislators have looked at state takeover as another “solution” (besides expanding vouchers and charter schools) for the students in those districts.  Ohio education policy for school districts serving very poor children is defined by punishment, not support.

EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers rob the public schools of essential dollars needed to educate the majority of Ohio’s students who remain in public schools.  And the vouchers are used primarily by students enrolled in religious schools. Through EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers, the state is sending millions of tax dollars out of the state’s public education budget and out of the coffers of local school districts to fund the religious education of students who would likely never have enrolled in public schools in the first place.

The problem just got worse this summer when the Ohio Legislature passed a two year budget which radically expands both programs.  The Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) recently published an update on its website to inform school treasurers about what just happened.  OASBO reports: “HB 166 (the new state budget) expanded the EdChoice Scholarship program in multiple ways.”

Changes in the EdChoice voucher program:  Although legislators have always said the purpose of vouchers is to provide an “escape” from so-called failing schools, the new budget provides that high school students are no longer required to have been previously enrolled in a public school to qualify for the voucher.  OASBO explains: “Generally, students wishing to claim a voucher under the original EdChoice voucher program must have attended a public school in the previous school year. However, HB 166 codifies in law… (that) students going into grades 9-12 need not first attend a public school. In other words, high school students already attending a private school can obtain a voucher.”

To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, students must reside in the zone of a so-called “failing” school.  The passage of the new budget this summer coincides with a recalculation last winter of the number of qualifying schools.  Last January, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that in the 2018-19 school year, 218 schools had been identified where students would qualify for the voucher.  O’Donnell explains that beginning in September of 2019, “that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475.”  Here is the Ohio Department of Education’s list of the schools which now qualify.

Why will these recent changes—increasing the number of high school students who will qualify and raising the number of schools which will qualify—have such a devastating fiscal effect on Ohio’s public schools?  The simple answer is that the EdChoice voucher program is funded through a school district deduction. A couple of years ago, Policy Matters Ohio published that in 2019, the state foundation basic aid reimbursement to school districts would be $6,020 per pupil. This is the state’s basic per-pupil reimbursement state aid amount—the state’s supposed contribution to every school district for every student enrolled. There is a caveat, however.  Policy Matters explains: “Policymakers increased the formula’s base per-pupil payment amount from $6,000 to $6,010 in 2018 and $6,020 in 2019, but for most districts, that increase was offset by other changes, including changes to the cap, which limits growth in state funding for fast-growing district, and changes to the guarantee, which slows loss for districts that are losing students.”  When a new funding formula, known as the Cupp-Patterson Plan, was proposed for discussion last spring, its promoters explained that due to the state’s gross underfunding of education, 503 of the state’s 610 districts do not currently collect the full formula amount per pupil. (See slide #22)

According to the Ohio Department of Education, every high school student taking an EdChoice voucher to a private school carries away $6,000 from the student’s home school district.  Here is how the school district voucher deduction works for high school students: a student set to receive a voucher is counted in the student’s home district’s Average Daily Membership figures and the home school district is said to receive $6,020 for that student. When the high school student now secures the voucher to pay private school tuition, the student’s school district loses $6,000.  But, because of caps and guarantees and other calculations in the formula, the school district is unlikely to be receiving anywhere near the promised $6,020.  The public school district will lose more state dollars in the voucher deduction than it is receiving for that student in formula basic aid from the state of Ohio.

Additionally, the Legislature found another way to expand the EdChoice vouchers in the new Ohio budget bill.  OASBO reports, “HB 166… requires ODE (the Ohio Department of Education) to increase the cap on the number of EdChoice vouchers available (increase the cap by 5 percent each time 90 percent of available vouchers are claimed).”  Until now the Ohio Department of Education had capped the number of EdChoice vouchers at 60,000, which limits the financial loss to school districts through the school district voucher deduction statewide.  But apparently the legislators who passed the budget are now more worried about protecting the right of an increasing number of students to get the vouchers than in protecting the fiscal viability of the state’s 610 school districts.

Changes in the EdChoice Expansion voucher program:  EdChoice Expansion differs from the original statewide EdChoice vouchers in two significant ways.  First, it is a statewide program for students across all of the state’s school districts, with eligibility based on family income. Second, it is funded by the state as a separate budget line item. The state does not count EdChoice Expansion voucher students as part of the Average Daily Membership in the school district where the voucher student resides. That school district does not collect state aid for that student, but neither does the state deduct money from that school district’s budget when the student gets the voucher.  The voucher comes straight from the state. OASBO reports that since the state established the program in 2013, it has been expanding eligibility every year by adding one grade at a time: “In FY 2019, students in grades K through 5 were eligible.”

However, the new FY 2020-2021 state budget makes all Ohio students in grades K-12 whose family income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for the state-funded EdChoice Expansion vouchers.  Originally the number of EdChoice Expansion vouchers was capped at 2,000; but in this budget, EdChoice Expansion vouchers are folded with EdChoice vouchers under the new 60,000 voucher cap, which can grow by 5 percent each time 90 percent of available vouchers are claimed.

In the new Ohio state budget budget for FY 2020-2021, legislators created a bonanza expansion of vouchers for private and religious schools.  It will come at the expense of the state’s public schools.

White House Imposes “Public Charge Rule” but 1982 Supreme Court Decision Blocks Efforts to Deny Public Education to Undocumented Children

On the front page of yesterday’s NY Times appeared, How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration, and yesterday’s Washington Post featured, The Ghostwriter: The Adviser Who Scripts Trump’s Immigration Policy.  These stories profile one of President Donald Trump’s most influential advisers—a sinister, skilled and influential manipulator of policy, other staff, and the President himself.

Miller is described by the Post‘s Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey as a deeply involved in the “immigration restrictionist movement.” For the NY Times, Jason DeParle describes Miller as “a speechwriter, policy architect, personnel director, legislative aide, spokesman and strategist.  At every step, he has pushed for the hardest line. When Mr. Trump wavered on his pledge to abolish protections for 800,000 so-called Dreamers—people brought illegally to the United States as children—Mr. Miller urged conservative states to threaten lawsuits. Mr. Trump then canceled the protections. When the president later mulled a deal to restore them, Mr. Miller stacked the negotiations with people who opposed the move, leading Mr. Trump to abandon compromise and rail against immigrants from ‘shithole countries.'”

Miller is described as skilled at working behind the scenes to manipulate staff at all levels including the President himself, but he has worked to keep a low profile. This week’s press coverage likely results from a new executive regulation—the “public charge rule”— finalized this week to promote Miller’s obsession: making America white again. The rule will take effect in mid-October.

Neither profile focuses on the effect of Miller’s policies on children—neither on Miller’s willingness to punish children for their parents’ border crossings, nor on Miller’s efforts more broadly to discourage immigration altogether by violating children’s rights or even isolating them in cages in detention centers at the border.  But the Washington, D.C., child advocacy organization, First Focus explains the potentially devastating implications of the new public charge rule on the children in immigrant families. The public charge rule will affect later considerations for citizenship qualification when immigrants eventually seek to acquire a green card or become a U.S. citizen. The new rule applies to legally documented immigrants as well as the undocumented: “The Trump administration has finalized a rule that will expand the definition of a public charge when determining eligibility for individuals applying for admission to the U.S. or for adjustment of status to that of lawful permanent resident (green card).  This expansion will allow for the consideration of an applicant’s use of services such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Federal, State and local cash assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and subsidized housing vouchers… The rule is expected to go into effect on October 15, 2019.”

For Bloomberg News, reporters Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink succinctly summarize the public charge rule: “Any immigrant who has used Medicaid, public housing assistance or food stamps for more than 12 months over a 36-month period can be denied permanent resident status under the new rule.”

First Focus explains how the new rule will possibly affect children’s eventual right to citizenship when, by no choice of their own, their parents use public services: “In the rule, DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) recognizes that children are not making decisions to apply for benefits themselves, yet they (at HHS) make no exemption for those who fall under a head of household. Alarmingly, they go out of their way to argue that there is no need for a child to have the capacity to understand the consequences of these actions.  While children are specifically exempt from Medicaid, other benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or federal, state and local cash assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) will be used against children when seeking adjustment of immigration status… When it comes to housing assistance, there is no way to separate benefits to parents and their children who live in the same home.”  The worry is that parents will fail to seek Medicaid coverage for themselves, and thereby threaten their children’s security, that children will go hungry or lose the right to free and reduced price lunch at school, and that expanding the public charge rule “will have a broad chilling effect and will deter all immigrant households from accessing any essential services out of fear it will negatively impact their immigration status.”

In another respect, however, the rule of law has clearly blocked Stephen Miller’s efforts to discourage immigration by threatening and punishing children.  Miller’s strategy this time was to deny public education to the children of undocumented  immigrants.  Bloomberg‘s Jacobs and Sink reported on Saturday that Miller has pursued a several years’ campaign within the administration to deny K-12 public school education to the children of undocumented immigrants: “Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller had been a driving force behind the effort as early as 2017, pressing cabinet officials and members of the White House Domestic Policy Council repeatedly to devise a way to limit enrollment…. Starting in late 2017, Miller pressed hard to find a way to limit undocumented immigrants’ access to public services, including education…. That effort included consideration last year of a guidance memo issued by the Education Department that would tell states they had the option to refuse students with an undocumented status to attend public schools from kindergarten through high school.  A memo was never issued.. The White House’s push was dropped because members of the administration determined the plan would violate Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court case that prohibited states from denying free public education based on their immigration status.”

Newsweek reporter Matt Keeley describes the 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe: “The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that this policy was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that states cannot ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.'” Keeley quotes from Justice William Brennan’s majority decision in Plyler v. Doe: “The children who are the plaintiffs in these cases are special members of this underclass…. Those who elect to enter our territory by stealth and in violation of our law should be prepared to bear the consequences, including, but not limited to, deportation. But the children of those illegal entrants are not comparably situated… Even if the State found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

Justice Brennan’s words perfectly describe why many American’s are so alarmed by the immigration policies emanating from the Trump administration and, apparently, designed by Stephen Miller—separation of young children and their parents at the border—the filthy and crowded detention centers for immigrant children—the failure to ensure protection for Dreamers—and now the public charge rule. Not only are these policies examples of cruelty, but also: “Legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

This Summer Betsy DeVos Quietly Repealed the “Gainful Employment Rule” on For-Profit Colleges and Trade Schools

This summer, while we’ve been reading about candidates running for President in 2020, the tragedy of mass shootings, and the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, deregulation has been perking along at the U.S. Department of Education, even though Betsy DeVos has managed to stay out of the spotlight.  Right at the end of June, DeVos and her staff moved along their agenda to deregulate for-profit colleges and trade schools by eliminating an important Obama-era rule. On Friday, June 28, they repealed what has been known as the “gainful employment rule.”

The Associated Press’s Collin Binkley reports: “The agency’s announcement said the rule focused too narrowly on graduate earnings and unfairly targeted for-profit colleges.”

What was the “gainful employment rule”?  Concerned that the federal government was bankrolling—with student grants and loans—shoddy career training programs that left graduates deeply in debt and unqualified to get a job, the Obama Department of Education created a rule to deny federal financial aid to these institutions unless they proved their programs were well enough designed to provide their students the skills that would make them employable upon graduation.

The NY Times’ Erica Green explains: “The so-called gainful employment rule was issued by the Obama administration in 2014 right before huge for-profit chains collapsed, leaving students stranded with debt and worthless degrees. Under the new standards, career and certificate programs, many of which operate in the for-profit sector, would have to prove their graduates could find gainful employment to maintain access to federal financial aid.  It also would have required schools to disclose in advertisements a comparison of the student debt load of their graduates and their career earnings.”

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports that the rule has motivated the for-profit higher education sector to clean up its act: “Shortly after the rule took effect, many colleges eliminated their worst-performing programs, froze tuition, and instituted other reforms to improve graduate outcomes.  Without the threat of sanctions, supporters of the regulation say there will be no accountability.  Accountability, they say, is critical after the implosions of for-profit Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. The closure of those chains, felled by charges of lying about job placement and graduation rates, resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loan forgiveness.”

But committed on principle to deregulation, Betsy DeVos and her appointees in the U.S. Department of Education have never enforced the “gainful employment rule” and have done everything they could to get rid of it.  Douglas-Gabriel explains: “DeVos delayed enforcement of key provisions of the regulation, then suspended the rule, then proposed a rewrite, before deciding to rescind it…. She said the delays were necessary in light of a federal lawsuit brought by an association of for-profit cosmetology schools seeking exemption.  But her actions spawned a series of lawsuits, including one filed by a coalition of 18 Democratic state attorneys-general… Although the rule covers vocational education at a variety of institutions, for-profit colleges voiced the loudest objections because a number of their programs were at risk.  When the Obama administration issued the rule in October 2014, it had identified 1,400 programs serving 840,000 students that would not meet its accountability standards; 99 percent of them were at for-profit colleges.”

DeVos and her staff argue that replacing regulation with marketplace transparency will protect prospective students. While the for-profits aggressively market their programs, the Department of Education has launched a website filled with data about various institutions—information for students shopping for a training program. Green explains: “Education Department officials have argued that transparency, not regulation, is the best way to hold all schools—public nonprofits, community colleges and for-profits—accountable for their results. Instead of any accountability measures, it promised to expand an existing database, called the College Scorecard, to provide information on student debt and earning prospects. The database, which provides information, including loan debt information, for 2,100 certificate granting programs was unveiled last month.”

Many for-profit colleges and certificate programs depend for the bulk of their operating expenses on students bringing federal grants or federally guaranteed student loans.  Binkley quotes Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network: “Scrapping these common sense regulations will lead to students racking up debt for worthless degrees, while DeVos props up failing and predatory schools with billions of dollars from taxpayers… There is simply no sound rationale for eliminating these important protections.”

Green quotes the chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Robert Scott, who said DeVos’s move to repeal the regulation will “prop up low-quality, for profit colleges at the expense of students and taxpayers.”

The repeal of the “gainful employment rule” is complete, but because the Department of Education missed a deadline in its repeal process, the regulation will, according to Douglas-Gabriel, “remain on the books until July 2020.”

You might ask for documentation that for-profit colleges soak up the bulk of federal loans and grants and for proof that students at these schools accrue unreasonable debts compared to other college students.   Politico’s Benjamin Wermund reports the U.S. Department of Education’s own numbers: “The number of students graduating from for-profit colleges rose from 4.6 percent of all students in 2008 to 6 percent in 2016.  Nearly 85 percent of them borrowed to attend, compared to 65 percent of students who graduated from public colleges and 69 percent who attended private nonprofits. For-profit graduates borrowed much more than their peers—$43,600 on average, compared to $27,900 borrowed by public school grads and $32,500 by private nonprofit graduates.”

And the for-profits are almost completely dependent on federal grants and loans. In her 2014 book, Degrees of Inequality, Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler explains: “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… 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. The Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, gained between 85 and 88 percent of its income from these sources in each of the past three years. 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.” (Degrees of Inequality, p. 168)

It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

When Traditional Public School Educators Set Public Policy and Speak for Public Schools, It Makes a Difference

If you are a proponent of the Jeb Bush-“Chiefs for Change” model of corporate school reform, you conceptualize school governance in terms of tough management overriding the interests of local educators who are said to be unable to handle the inevitable and often competing pressures within a community.  In its formula for state takeover of low-scoring school districts, Chiefs for Change prescribes: “unflinching” appointed leadership; the appointed leader’s absolute autonomy to control staffing, teachers, and school culture; the appointed leader’s capacity to demand and get results or fire staff; and the appointment of an “unbiased” third-party consultant “external to the school system.”

Traditional educators understand the role of public schools very differently. Working with a community and building collaboration are skills practiced by traditional school administrators.  Last Thursday, for example, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Tony McGee, the school superintendent in Mississippi’s Scott County Public Schools when Brown wanted to learn about the how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids had affected families and children in Scott County.  Superintendent McGee told Brown: “We had approximately 154 students across our district, mainly Hispanic and Latino… that were absent from school today.  And so we have started reaching out to those families to find out about boys and girls—where they’re at or how they’re doing—just making sure that they know school is a safe place for them—it can be a safe harbor for boys and girls—and that we’re here to care for those kids… We have a lot of organizations in Scott County that are deeply rooted into the Hispanic community. And so they came to lend support to our school people… and making sure that everybody felt safe… On our end, especially in the community and the school, we had no prior knowledge. And so it was—it was pretty—pretty shocking. It was really a tough day emotionally for our educators and students and families.”

There is an ongoing battle of values and language that shapes the way we think about and talk about education.  The current threats across several states of state takeover of school districts are perhaps the best example of this conflict.  According to the Chiefs for Change model, the school district in Providence has recently been taken over by the state of Rhode Island.  Texas now threatens to take over the public schools in Houston. In Ohio, four years of state takeover has created chaos in Lorain and dissatisfaction in Youngstown.  East Cleveland is now in the process of being taken over, and the Legislature has instituted a one-year moratorium while lawmakers figure out whether to proceed with threatened takeovers of the public school districts in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.

Among the most painful situations this summer is the threatened closure of the high school or the state takeover of the school district in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a segregated African American community and one of the poorest in the state.  Michigan has actively expanded school choice with charter schools and an inter-district open enrollment program in which students carry away their school funding. The statewide expansion of charters and inter-district school choice has undermined the most vulnerable school districts and triggered a number of state takeover actions.  Michigan State University’s David Arnsen explains: “In Michigan, all the money moves with the students. So it doesn’t take account of the impact on the districts and students who are not active choosers… When the child leaves, all the state and local funding moves with that student. The revenue moves immediately and that drops faster than the costs… In every case they (districts losing students to Schools of Choice) are districts that are predominantly African American and poor children and they suffered terrific losses of enrollment and revenue….”

Benton Harbor—heavily in debt and struggling academically—has been threatened with state intervention like Inkster, Buena Vista, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—whole school districts which were closed, charterized, or put under emergency manager control by former governor Rick Snyder.  Now the new Governor Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to close the high school in Benton Harbor or eventually close the district.

However, the State Board of Education in Michigan, an elected body with the power to choose the state school superintendent, has appointed a public school educator who doesn’t value the corporate, Chiefs for Change model. Michael Rice understands the role of public schools in a community. Rice, who began his tenure as state superintendent last week, was the school superintendent in Kalamazoo until his recent appointment to state office.  Bridge Magazine‘s Ron French explains the significance of Rice’s appointment: “As state superintendent, Rice is independent from the… governor’s office.  Rice was appointed to his position by the State Board of Education, which has eight members who are elected in statewide elections.”  “Having the state’s highest ranking school official come out against the (high school) closure could put more pressure on officials in the governor’s office and the Treasury Department to find a way to keep the high school open… Rice’s stance is also significant because it undercuts one avenue the state could use to dissolve the school district (which Whitmer threatened to do if the Benton Harbor school board didn’t agree to shutter the high school).  The state treasurer and the state superintendent can agree to close a school district if certain metrics are met. If Rice is a firm no on closure, that avenue is closed.”

French describes State Superintendent Rice’s understanding of his role in working out what has become a political crisis in Benton Harbor: “In an interview in his office on his seventh day on the job, Rice minced no words in expressing his position on the controversy.  When asked if the high school should close Rice answered with one word: ‘No.’ ‘We, collectively in the state, need to figure out how to stabilize Benton Harbor’s finances and academics such that (closing) is not necessary.'”  Rice continues: “There’s going to be a conversation around finances, and that’s the province of Treasury… And I’m not trying to force myself into that world.  That being said, there’s an academic component to it and I will be involved in the academic component of it.  As you can see, I have strong feelings about the importance of community, and about the importance of the strength of the community relative to its public schools… A high school is the center of a community.”

The Kalamazoo school superintendent has become the new state superintendent in Michigan.  In Wisconsin, the state superintendent of public instruction was elected last November as the new governor.  Governor Tony Evers calls the new budget he signed “a start” to help Wisconsin’s public schools recover from former Governor Scott Walker’s tax cuts and the budget slashing that followed. Governor Evers has lost no opportunity for sharing his support for the state’s public school districts.  He has showed up and presented keynote addresses at all five Summer Summit gatherings of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The LaCrosse Tribune‘s Kyle Farris shares Heather DuBois Bourenane’s  assessment of what it means to have a public school educator instead of a tax cutter leading the state.  DuBois Bourenane is the director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network: “Having a budget worth fighting for was such a welcome challenge… Electing a public educator to the office of governor is amazing for kids.  We have somebody who knows how schools work in that office, which is new.”

Once inflation is factored in, the public school budget in Wisconsin is still behind where it was before Scott Walker’s election, but Farris describes how Evers has begun to make a difference: “Evers used his veto pen to allocate $87 million more in K-12 public education spending than Republican legislators had intended. He increased funding for special education, school mental health programs, and per-pupil aid—and vowed to fund two-thirds of schools’ overall costs in the future.” And Evers has been relentlessly talking about the importance—for kids and for communities—of these investments.

When public school educators frame the education conversation around the public good, it is a reminder of the essential role of a democratically governed public system designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children.

Teachers and Teachers Unions: Essential to Recovering Equity After Years of Funding Cuts and Privatization

The annual Phi Delta Kappa poll came out earlier this week, and not surprisingly, writes the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler, “The poll found widespread teacher complaints about low pay and poor funding for their schools, and nearly half said they felt unvalued by their communities.  Most said they would not want one of their own children to follow them into teaching.”  She continues: “The annual survey was conducted by PDK International, an association of teachers, administrators and other professionals, which has measured public attitudes toward schools for 51 years.”

Meckler quotes Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK international and formerly the Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland: “It’s shocking in some ways, but anybody who’s been following public education in the last 20 years and the demonization of teachers, the continued low pay, the working conditions, the relentless focus on standardized testing as the only measure of success, would naturally conclude we would reap what we sowed.”

In a book published last year, the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker presents the stark fiscal realities that partly explain why teachers are so discouraged: “Consider, for example, the trade-off between spending to pay teachers more competitive salaries to improve teacher quality versus spending to provide smaller class sizes.  In many cases, schools and districts serving high-need student populations are faced with both noncompetitive salaries and larger class sizes, as compared to more advantaged surrounding districts. Trading one for the other is not an option, or, in the best case, is a very constrained choice. It is unhelpful at best for public policy and is harmful to the children subjected to those policies to pretend without any compelling evidence that somewhere there exists a far cheaper way to achieve the same or better outcomes…. A common false-choice argument is that good teachers matter more than money.  In this view, we simply need good teachers and recruitment and retention (and dismissal) policies to achieve this goal, regardless of money. This argument falsely assumes that there is no connection whatsoever between the amount of available funding for salaries and benefits and the ability of schools and districts to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, p. 51)

Baker continues: “The level of teacher wages matters in at least two ways.  First, among schools and districts in any given region, the salary a district can pay to a teacher with specific credentials affects which teachers that district can recruit and retain.  So do working conditions… Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods need not only comparable wages to recruit and retain comparable teachers, but they need substantively higher wages.  And second, the level of teacher salaries more generally compared with other employment options requiring similar education levels affects the quality of entrants into the teacher workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 51-52)

For Chicago’s WBEZ, education reporter Sarah Karp presents a case study of exactly how these factors are playing out for teachers, students, and an entire school district in Chicago. The subject is the shortage of teachers, particularly special education teachers, in Chicago’s poorest schools and an accompanying crisis from the lack of substitute teachers willing to serve in these schools.  Karp explains: “This is the stark reality in Chicago Public Schools. Last school year, almost a third of 520 district-run schools—152—had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long… The problem is most acute at schools serving low-income and black students. They are twice as likely as all other schools to have a yearlong teacher vacancy. Chicago’s 28 schools with majority white student populations had no yearlong vacancies. And making matters worse, CPS also has a severe substitute teacher shortage… At 62 schools, half the time a teacher was absent no substitute showed up. Here, again, there is a racial disparity.  When majority black and Latino Chicago public schools request a substitute to cover a class, subs didn’t show up 35% of the time, data from September 2018 through March 2019 shows. That’s compared to 20% at majority-white or racially-mixed schools. Substitute teachers can turn down any school assignment.”

In Chicago, racist stereotypes contribute to the problem: “Principal Jasmine Thurmond said the teacher and substitute shortage hits a school like hers extra hard. ‘The perception is that Englewood is a dangerous place to live and it is a dangerous place to work… And because the media does such a great job at perpetuating that, it ends up becoming an internal bias for some folks so much so sometimes they don’t apply for schools that are in areas like Englewood or Austin or Roseland.'”

The school district and administrators in particular schools are working hard to counter perceptions and to launch programs to confront the unequal distribution of teachers and substitutes. Ms. Thurmond, the principal at King Elementary explains that she has, “built relationships with universities and others that help her fill positions.” Because the district leaves some discretion for principals to allocate the funds for their buildings, “(S)ome schools pay for a full-time teacher who works as a substitute floater. Because the money for this position comes out of the school’s budget, it means they have less for other positions, like an art teacher or a reading specialist.”

The district has also designated 60 “Opportunity Schools” for which: “The school district recruits teachers, vets them hires them and then plays matchmaker between schools and candidates.  It also supports the new teachers once they are in the schools… (A) key is that teacher candidates are brought in to tour Opportunity Schools.”  Matt Lyons, who is the District’s chief talent officer, explains: “Despite what someone might read, assume or hear from a friend, you walk into these schools and they are safe, they are welcoming, students are smiling and happy to be there and happy to learn.”

The issues of under-funding by state governments, school funding inequity, racial and economic segregation, and structural racism are deep and abiding, however.  A new report from Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles (ROSLA) traces the story of strategic organizing over several years to develop community support for the city’s schools and for school teachers: “The case study examines how the teachers union and their partners… built and carried out a two-year campaign that lifted a vision of ‘the schools all our students deserve’ into the public consciousness.”

The project was a strategic initiative of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA): “Internally, UTLA embarked on a complete reorganization of the union…. The union increased face-to-face communications with members, expanded school-based structures, and created a Research and Analytics Department to track member contacts.  For the first time, the union was asking its members what they believed was important in their schools, for their students, and in their communities… Externally, the union forged a coalition with three organizations—the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment… the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy… and Students Deserve….” The United Teachers of Los Angeles had created a strong and deeply rooted community coalition—Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles.”

What followed was the teachers’ strike last January.  Here are merely some of the agreements ROSLA claims were won in the strike, which was widely supported across Los Angeles because teachers sought not only salary increases but reforms deemed essential among parents and others: more nurses, counselors and librarians; smaller class size; nearly $12 million for the development of Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services that help families; a reduction in standardized testing; the end of random searches of students which had been occurring in some schools; district support for immigrant students and more ethnic studies programming; support from the city’s school board for stronger regulation of charter schools which drain money from the public schools; and commitment from the Mayor and the LAUSD School Board to join the fight for a 2020 ballot measure challenging the state’s 1978 tax freeze law, Proposition13.

In Los Angeles strong leadership from the teachers union enabled teachers to take action to relieve the kind of despair the new PDK poll shows teachers are experiencing across the states.  ROSLA reports that during the Los Angeles teachers’ strike last January, UTLA’s efforts among its members and its organizing across the community paid off: “The outpouring of support for the strike from every corner of the district signaled an unambiguous commitment to public schools in LA—a city where there is real fear that the very existence of public education is under threat. For over two decades, the nation’s students and teachers have endured a coordinated assault on public education. Budgets have been slashed. Teachers, students and schools have been relentlessly tested and shamed. Children—particularly children of color—have been criminalized through policies that promote compliance over creativity. Further, cities like LA have been sold the false promise of ‘choice’ instead of the guarantee of quality and equity… The story is still unfolding. But the long-term campaign at the core of this story offers critical lessons.  Whether you come from the perspective of a labor unionist, a classroom teacher, a parent, a student, a community member, or as a philanthropist interested in strengthening the foundations of our public life, the work of Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles provides insight, vision, and hope at a time when all are much needed.”