Roberts’ Decision in Espinoza Case Undermines Protection of Church-State Separation; Will Damage Public Education

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a long awaited decision in the church-state separation case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. NY Times Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak quotes Roberts’ argument: “‘A state need not subsidize private education…. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.’ In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion ‘weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.'”

Although historically, religious liberty and church-state cases have been decided on the basis of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” this week’s decision rests on what’s known as the “free exercise clause.”

In a particularly lucid explication of this week’s decision, VOX’s Ian Millhiser explains: “The First Amendment places two limits on the government’s interaction with religion: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’… Thus, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause limits the government’s ability to advance religion, and the free Exercise Clause limits the government’s ability to target people of faith. The government is simultaneously obligated both to stay out of religious matters and to protect the rights of the faithful—a dual obligation that courts have often found difficult to reconcile.”

Millhiser continues, explaining that Roberts’ decision rests on a 2017 precedent: “As Roberts argues in his opinion, the result in Espinoza flows from the Court’s previous decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer... which held that the state of Missouri could not exclude religious organizations from a state program that offered ‘grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.’… According to Roberts, Trinity Lutheran reached the ‘unremarkable conclusion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny.’ Just as the Missouri recycled tires program ‘discriminated against the Church simply because of what it is—a church,’ the Montana constitution ‘bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools.'”

The current Espinoza case was brought by several mothers whose children are enrolled in the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana.  Plaintiffs were represented by—and clearly recruited by—the Institute for Justice, a far-right, libertarian law firm which, for years, has set out to challenge First Amendment protection of the separation of religion from government. In this case, the Montana Supreme Court had already partially shut down the tuition tax credit program at issue in the case.  Writing for Education Dive, Linda Jacobson reports that the program will now continue: “In Montana, the ruling means the scholarship program continues because the Montana Supreme Court granted a partial stay, allowing existing scholarship funds to be distributed while awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.”

The Espinoza decision will affect the 37 states with what are known as Blaine Amendments in their state constitutions. Jacobson explains: “The statutes are named for James G. Blaine, a U.S. representative who tried, following the Civil War, to get a bill through Congress that would have denied any aid to sectarian schools. His legislation failed, but efforts to write such language into state constitutions were clearly more successful.”

Why are supporters of public education so concerned about the implications of this case? In the first place, voucher programs drain needed tax dollars out of public schools. In Ohio, for example, a state that already permits public funds to flow to religious schools, EdChoice vouchers extract $4,650 for each elementary and middle school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher—right from the local public school district’s budget.

Another serious problem with vouchers is that the law protects students’ rights in public schools, but the same laws do not protect students enrolled in private schools. Writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern worries that now, after Espinoza: “Taxpayers in most of the country will soon start funding overtly religious education—including the indoctrination of children into a faith that might clash with their own conscience.  For example, multiple schools that participate in Montana’s scholarship program inculcate students with a virulent anti-LGBTQ ideology that compares homosexuality to bestiality and incest.  But many Montanans of faith believe LGBTQ people deserve respect and equality because they are made in the image of God. What does the Supreme Court have to say to Montanans who do not wish to fund religious indoctrination that contradicts their own beliefs?”

Stern continues, examining how quickly Supreme Court opinions have reversed Constitutional interpretation of church-state issues: “This decision flips the First Amendment on its head. The amendment’s free exercise clause protects religious liberty, while its establishment clause commands that the government make no law ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’  Just 18 years ago in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a bare majority of the Supreme Court ruled that, under the establishment clause, states were allowed to fund private schools through vouchers or tax credits, over vigorous dissents from the four liberal justices. Now the court has declared that, under the free exercise clause, most states are compelled to fund private religious schools”—that is if they choose to use vouchers to divert tax dollars to any private schools.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty was joined in an amicus brief in the Espinoza case by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  After the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday, the Baptist Joint Committee General Council, Holly Hollman declared: “The decision’s high concern for equal treatment of religious schools disregards the distinctiveness of religion in our constitutional order and contradicts the special treatment that religion rightfully receives to keep government from influencing and interfering with it.  In a shell game that focuses on preventing discrimination based on religious status, the Court fails to recognize Montana’s legitimate interest in protecting religious freedom by avoiding funding religious education.”

Forward, a Jewish publication, quotes Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union: “It’s a great help to our ongoing advocacy efforts to have state and local governments provide a fair and equitable share of support for our K-12 schools in the Jewish community.”

However Forward also quotes Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, on behalf of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: “We are deeply disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Montana’s prohibition on state funding of private religious schools… We joined an amicus brief in support of Montana’s prohibition on financial support for religious education, because not only do tuition tax credits and other types of school vouchers divert desperately needed funding from public schools, these programs also violate separation of church and state when such funding is directed towards religious schools.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State responded to Tuesday’s Espinoza decision: “Let’s not forget that vouchers were first developed to evade integration orders and fund segregation academies specifically designed to keep black and white students apart.  Even now, national data show that private schools tend to be more segregated than similarly situated public schools and enroll higher populations of white students compared to public schools… Three-quarters of state constitutions contain provisions intended to protect taxpayers from being forced to fund religion, a long-held value. The Supreme Court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent….  Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that taxpayer-funded vouchers must fund private religious schools if they fund secular private schools, it is more important than ever that we fight to oppose all private school voucher programs. Public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90% of our nation’s students… We must reject the Trump-DeVos agenda of private school voucher programs that divert desperately needed resources away from public schools in order to fund private religious instruction.”

Over many years, when plans to establish voucher programs have been set up as ballot issues,  American citizens have universally voted to defeat the proposals. My suspicion is that most American’s favor the protections promised in the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” rather than accepting Roberts’ convoluted argument justifying vouchers under the “free exercise clause.”

Personalized Learning May Appear to Solve Pandemic Education Challenges but New Research Raises Big Concerns

Here we are at the beginning of July, and the COVID-19 numbers are soaring across many states. The recessionary collapse of state budgets makes public school funding look shaky, and nobody can quite say how to make school safe. With the 2020-21 school year expected to start in six weeks, school leaders face overwhelming uncertainty. It is easy to imagine that a well-known, free, online learning platform and curriculum, funded entirely by tech philanthropists, might be extremely tempting.

But there are reasons for caution. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a guest column from researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a guest column describing the Summit Learning Platform, and warning about some of the reasons for school district leaders to be cautious. These researchers, Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, have documented serious concerns about protecting the privacy of student data collected by Summit Learning and its sponsors. To underscore the seriousness of their concerns, they describe the powerful people behind Summit Learning:

“Summit Public Schools, founded in 2003, currently operates 11 schools enrolling approximately 4,675 students in California and Washington State. In 2013-2014, there was no Summit Learning Program or ‘partner’ schools. Things changed quickly after a 2014-2015 agreement between Summit and Facebook established the goals of enhancing Summit’s self-created software platform and collaborating on a marketing strategy for its nationwide adoption. Since then, Summit Public Schools has received extensive technical support from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and almost $200 million in funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Iniative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.”

Molnar and Boninger review Summit’s marketing claims: “Summit Public Schools claims that its educational program does an exceptional job of preparing students for college and that its graduates succeed in college. Its specific claims are that its students are ‘100 percent Eligible for 4-Year College,’ that ’98 percent [of its students are] accepted to four-year college,’ and that its students graduate from college at ‘2X the national average.’… Schools that agree to become ‘partner’ schools agree to adopt Summit’s free, off-the-shelf program, use its digital platform, and participate in the required staff trainings and Summit-organized support activities… This marketing pitch has met with considerable success. By the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 400 schools nationwide, with nearly 3,800 educators and more than 72,000 students were using the Summit Learning Program.”

Molnar and Boninger’s report on their five years of research focuses on what ought to be serious data privacy concerns for school districts that might choose to fall back on this free digital education platform in these difficult times.  But the new research on the difficulty of protecting students’ data is not the first serious critique of Summit Learning.

Background

A year ago, as part of an in-depth evaluation of the Providence, Rhode Island public schools, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy condemned the use of Summit Learning in that city’s public schools for academic reasons. In extensive classroom visits, researchers observed that students were neither engaged by their online lessons nor learning very much:  “(W)e witnessed significant problems in the use of the Summit Learning Platform. In one school, Summit was the major mode of mathematics instruction; in other classrooms, it seemed to be used for supplemental (e.g., remedial or practice) instruction. When we observed students using Summit, they were not engaged with the software in optimal ways. Instead of watching videos or reading tutorial texts, students went straight to the exam and attempted to answer the questions. When they answered incorrectly, corrective text popped up, which students did read; they then tried again with the next question. Even if students progressed according to plan, their learning would be limited to how to answer problems in the format presented by the Summit exam. In one school, we did not observe a single Summit math teacher engage in whole-class or even small-group math instruction. Instead, teachers either completed work at their desks, and/or answered questions when students raised their hand. Finally, the lack of teacher surveillance of student progress in some Summit classrooms meant that students worked very slowly through the material.”

It is, therefore not surprising that the Johns Hopkins researchers discovered students hated the program: “Students almost universally disliked the Summit program. They told the team that they are burned-out through the overuse of screen time, and bored. Some claimed that students actively left school as a result of the platform. There were classes we visited in which teachers appropriately integrated a blended learning model, but in most cases, students were just staring at the screens, totally disengaged.”

In 2018, students at New York’s Brooklyn Secondary School of Journalism walked out of school in protest and formally wrote to Mark Zuckerberg to critique the program: “Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.”  In their letter, the Brooklyn students also demanded information about the massive amount of student data being collected by Summit Learning.

A New York advocacy organization, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, has investigated and protested Summit Learning’s collection of student data: “Summit claims the right to collect an extraordinary amount of personal student information. Among the data collected by Summit… include: student and parent names and e-mail addresses; student ID numbers, attendance, suspension and expulsion records; their disabilities, gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status; their date of birth, teacher observations, their communications with teachers; their grade promotion or retention, test scores, college admissions, survey responses, homework assignments, and extracurricular activities they participate in. Summit plans to track students even after they graduate from high schools, including their college attendance and eventual careers. Summit shares this data with as many as 20 corporate ‘partners’ including CZI (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) and Google….”

NEPC’s New Report by Faith Boninger,  Alex Molnar, and Christopher M. Saldana

In their new report reflecting five years of research, Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana emphasize Summit Learning’s serious failure to protect student privacy: “Our review of summit partner school contracts suggests that student data collected by the Summit Learning Platform… presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of these data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties—for purposes that have noting to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.”

Summarizing the report in their guest column published by Valerie Strauss, Boninger and Molnar remind readers: “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have taught the world that data are fungible and can mean big money. And, also that data can be very dangerous when controlled by an opaque organization immune to public oversight. Regardless of who is named the owner of student data in partner school contracts, as Summit Learning’s technology partner, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has full access to the de-identified data and certainly has access to the technical expertise to re-identify it. Though it is often thought of as a charity, it is important to note that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is nether a charity nor a philanthropic organization. It is a limited liability corporation. A business.  As a result, although it may make charitable contributions, it may also make political contributions, engage in political lobbying, and invest in for-profit companies. Among the things the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative can gain from its collaboration with Summit Learning is access to significant amounts of student data that it can convert into a considerable amount of money.”

In their report, NEPC researchers recommend that state departments of education upgrade their oversight of personalized learning platforms “to require that the digital personalized learning programs be externally reviewed and approved by independent third-party education experts…; require that the assumptions and programming of all algorithms associated with personalized learning materials be audited for bias and other possible risks to students before the algorithms are implemented; and develop a standard data-security agreement that protects the privacy and limits the use of all data, including de-identified data, collected by schools through personalized learning materials….”  (emphasis in the original)

The researchers report that Summit Learning did not comply with their requests for data and detailed information. Data shared was anecdotal. Summit Learning persisted in undocumented claims that its learning platform is: “a ‘science-based’ personalized learning mode of teaching and learning that results in all of its students being academically prepared for college… None of the claims made by Summit Public Schools have been confirmed by independent evaluators.”

Boninger, Molnar, and Saldana conclude:  “The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program—despite a lack of transparency and the absence of convincing evidence that it can deliver on its promises—provides a powerful example of how policymakers are challenged when faced with a well-financed and self-interested push for schools to adopt digital personalized learning programs.  There is now an urgent need for policymakers to move quickly to protect the public interest by establishing oversight….”

Final CARES Act Disribution Rule Still Favors Private Schools Over Public Schools

Betsy DeVos just released binding final guidance for states to distribute $13.2 billion from the CARES Act to public school districts and private schools. States and public school districts have been pushing back against DeVos’s preliminary non-binding guidance, which favors funding for private and religious schools.  Now in her final guidance DeVos has struck a compromise of sorts, but many think her new plan is unworkable.

In the language of the CARES Act, Congress distributed $13.2 billion in relief funds to school districts  to reflect the distribution plan in the Title I formula, which sends federal money to school districts according to the number and concentration of impoverished students enrolled in the district’s public schools. Title I also requires school districts to provide Title I services for students who live below 185 percent of the federal poverty level and are enrolled in private schools located within district boundaries. In April, in her preliminary (non-binding) guidance for distribution of CARES Act dollars, however, DeVos prescribed that CARES Act dollars would be distributed to private and religious schools based on their total enrollment, not just for the number of impoverished students they enroll.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains how Betsy DeVos’s new final rule revises her previous non-binding guidance for the distribution of CARES Act dollars to public and private schools:

  • “A district can decide to distribute the CARES money only to schools that received Title I for the 2019-20 school year—essentially, those schools with a minimum share of students from low-income backgrounds.
  • “If districts choose to distribute aid only to Title I schools, they can use two options to calculate how much money they set aside for equitable services (for private schools): they can use the same amount for equitable services they set aside for the 2019-20 school year, or they can conduct a count of low-income students in local private schools to determine the proportional share.
  • “If a district distributes aid only to Title I schools, it can’t use the CARES money to backfill cuts at the state and local level. That could create a very big incentive for districts not to spend CARES money only on Title I schools, given the huge budget cuts many districts are facing.
  • “But if a district distributes CARES aid to schools that didn’t receive Title I in 2019-20, then it must calculate the amount it must set aside for equitable services (for private schools) using a count of all local students enrolled in private schools in the district.”

Ujifusa explains why what appears to be DeVos’s compromise may actually complicate decisions for school districts already struggling financially and at the same time trying to figure out how to reopen school this fall: “The… final rule could in theory make life easier for districts where all the schools received Title I in 2019-20, since they could treat equitable services (for private schools) like they always have.  But districts with some schools that didn’t get Title I in 2019-20 would have to weigh whether they want to help all their schools, and then set aside more money for private school students as a consequence, or only use CARES aid to benefit their schools with relatively large shares of poor students and reserve less money for students in private schools.” Under the new compromise, if schools target CARES Act dollars only to their Title I students, these dollars cannot be used to fill in for what are in many cases enormous overall recessionary cuts in state aid.

The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler explains why what seems to be a compromise really isn’t designed to meet the needs of most school districts: “The agency offered what it billed as a compromise.  It said that school districts may distribute the money to private schools based on the number of poor students they serve.  But if they do so, districts must then restrict their own spending of the federal money to the benefit of their own poor students… Opponents said this was not a real alternative.  Although the law (CARES Act) uses poverty to allocate funding, it allows districts to use the money to aid all schools and students. It’s designed to offset expenses such as cleaning of schools and training teachers in remote education. Opponents said restricting districts’ spending authority to only high poverty schools would hamstring them. A GOP congressional aide agreed and said Congress never intended to give private schools so much funding and DeVos is jeopardizing other efforts to provide them with aid.”

Meckler quotes Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association: “The policy priorities of the secretary represent an opportunistic money grab, using the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda.”

In a follow-up piece, Ujifusa reviews the controversy about DeVos’s original plan to force school districts to award CARES Act dollars to private and religious schools based on those schools’ total enrollment: “Advocates have… accused DeVos of exploiting the pandemic and CARES aid to shore up private schools fearful that they could be forced to close permanently, at the expense of traditional public schools. The fight over roughly $13 billion in federal Covid-19 aid revives long-running and bitter disputes over DeVos’s stance on traditional public schools, and whether she is intent on redirecting resources and other benefits to private schools and other educational models. At least two states have said recently they plan to ignore the late April guidance, and at least one state—Tennessee—has said it will follow the directive.  However, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said last week that he differs from DeVos about equitable services (for private schools) under the CARES Act. Congress has the power to overturn DeVos’ guidance,although Alexander did not say he supported a move to do either of those things.  Federal lawmakers can also nullify regulations from agencies like the Education Department.”

Back in May, after the Council for Chief State School Officers complained that DeVos’s preliminary guidance for distribution of CARES Act dollars favored private schools at the expense of public schools, DeVos accused the state school superintendents and other public school educators of selfishness and unwillingness to share: “We trust that LEAs (‘Local education agencies’ is the federal term for local school districts.) understand their general obligations to provide equitable services to students and teachers in nonpublic schools when they accept (federal) money….  Although I understand their reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control, I would remind states and LEAs that their non-public school peers have also been overwhelmed by COVID-19.”

Let’s stop here and consider the idea of selfishness among local school districts. Even when, as advocates, we seek more equitable funding for the poorest school districts, nobody I know wants a funding system that would take away from the services provided in the wealthiest school districts.  When I think about the richest school districts I know personally, I don’t want them to give up their challenging curricula; their art and school music programs and high school orchestras; their advanced science and math courses; extra electives in literature, history and government; high school newspapers; well supplied school libraries; up to date technology; smaller classes; school nurses in every building; and manageable case loads for counselors, school psychologists and social workers.  What we all want is more of these services in the poorest schools to bring them to a level of what most parents would define as adequate services. Everybody I know who seeks better public school funding equity wants to level up, not to level down.

Public education dollars buy services for 50 million children and adolescents across the United States. State superintendents and local school district officials are not selfishly trying to hoard CARES Act dollars.  These educators want to protect federal CARES Act dollars urgently needed in the nation’s 98,000 public schools for the purpose of serving students during the pandemic and making up for deep recessionary cuts in state funding. They are trying to protect federal emergency assistance desperately needed in our public institutions.

Budgeting for the Public Good

Public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public, while imperfect, are essential for ensuring that all children are served.  Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Our society has improved justice in our system of public education over the generations because the U.S. Constitution, the constitutions of the 50 states, and laws passed by Congress and the state legislatures protect the rights of all children including previously marginalized—African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, and LGBTQ—children. Public schools will always need to be improved to do a better job, and public oversight under law is embedded into the very design of public education. If a student is poorly served, the family has the right to redress under the law.

Private schools, which accept publicly funded tuition vouchers, are neither required to protect the rights of disabled children by providing the necessary and appropriate programming, nor to provide services for undocumented children, nor to accept children of every religion. And while charter schools that contract with the government are charged with protecting students’ rights, many find ways to push out the students they don’t want or employ zero tolerance disciplinary practices that violate children’s civil rights. Oversight is supposed to be provided by state laws in the more than 40 states which have set up charter schools, but in many cases the laws are weak and enforcement is lax.

Private schools accepting publicly funded tuition vouchers and charter schools, which are paid tax dollars under government contracts, extract public funds from the public school system, which serves 90 percent of our society’s children and adolescents, roughly 50 million young people. While recently President Donald Trump, has been trashing “government” schools,” he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both support privatized alternatives which are, ironically, paid for by government. School choice creates a marketplace of privatized services, but the costs are absorbed by government at the expense of the public schools that serve most of our children. These publicly funded but privatized educational institutions pay for their operating expenses with public dollars, but no one can promise they will protect the public good.

I guess if you are a right-leaning promoter of school privatization like Betsy DeVos, you would consider the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities “a left-leaning think tank,” a tag I often see in the press next to the name of this national organization.  After all, as its name explains, it is an organization that examines the appropriation of public dollars for public purposes—the federal budget and the budgets of the fifty states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines the priorities represented when federal and state legislative bodies appropriate money.  If you don’t like public institutions like public schools, or if you don’t like funding for programs like CHIP (children’s healthcare) or SNAP (food stamps) you might disdain the CBPP—by callling it a liberal think tank—because it advocates funding levels for these programs. CBPP looks at public funding trends over the decades and how these funding trends reflect the level of services provided.

As someone who values public schools as among our society’s primary civic institutions, I value the the Center on Budget and Priorities for objective analysis of public school budget appropriations across the states. In a June 11, 2020 brief, CBPP reviews the history of the impact of the Great Recession a decade ago on public education budgets across the states: “When COVID-19 hit, K-12 schools employed 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers than before the Great Recession even though they were teaching 2 million more children, and overall K-12 funding in many states was still below pre-recession levels. In response (to the Great Recession), many districts had to increase class sizes, employ fewer school nurses, and counselors, and postpone needed investments in technology and school buildings. These cuts harm students—especially students in low-income districts, who are disproportionately students of color. One study found that high-school graduation rates fell by 2.6 percentage points for every 10 percent spending cut by public school districts after the Great Recession. Cuts in state support often widen educational divides between students in poorer districts and those in wealthier districts, which can more easily make up for the lost funding.”

Now, due to COVID-19 business shutdowns and layoffs, the U.S. economy has fallen into another recession.  CBPP’s June 11 policy brief addresses the likely impact of the current COVID-19 economic crisis crisis on children: “States’ fiscal crises threaten cuts that would damage children’s future. Due to the pandemic and resulting economic fallout, states face historic shortfalls of hundreds of billions of dollars over three state fiscal years. Absent further fiscal relief states and localities will be forced to cut services, likely including services particularly important to children, such as K-12 education and possibly even the Children’s Health Insurance Program. School districts have laid off or furloughed 760,000 employees over the last three months. Such cuts can have lasting impacts. K-12 funding faced especially damaging cuts in the Great Recession and school districts have never fully recovered from the layoffs imposed back then.”

In a second report, on June 15, The Center on Budget and Polities Priorities State Budget Watch explains: “COVID-19 has triggered a severe state budget crisis. While the full magnitude of this crisis is not yet clear, state revenues are declining precipitously and costs are rising sharply with many businesses closed and tens of millions of people newly unemployed… CBPP estimates that state budget shortfalls will ultimately reach almost 10 percent in the current fiscal year (which ends on June 30 in most states) and about 25 percent in fiscal year 2021 based on recent economic projections… States must shortly adopt budgets that will extend until July 2021. State revenue estimators are likely proceeding cautiously with these initial estimates… Policymakers will want to be more certain about the scale of expected revenue drops before making large and harmful budget cuts. Current economic forecasts strongly suggest, however, that as the full scale of the downturn becomes clearer, revenue projections will fall further… Even the initial projections now available make clear that states face an immediate crisis in their current fiscal years.”

Finally, in a  June 15, policy brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns: “Our estimate of $615 billion in shortfalls over state fiscal years 2020-2022 is based on the historical relationship between unemployment and state revenues and on the average of the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and Federal Reserve Board projections. The estimate demonstrates that the federal aid policymakers have provided to date, while helpful, will fall far short…  States hold $75 billion in their rainy day funds, a historically high amount, but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenges they now face.  And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that would still leave them about $440 billion short. The shortfalls that local governments, tribes, and territories face are in addition to this.” (emphasis in the original)

The June 15 brief continues: “States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without additional, substantial federal help, they likely will deeply cut critical program areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in even greater numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses… The coronavirus relief bill that the House passed on May 15, the HEROES Act, includes substantial state and local fiscal relief…. States need robust aid of this nature to avoid making cuts that would further weaken an already weak economy and cause further widespread hardship.”

It is now the end of June, and school superintendents and school boards are trying to figure out how to plan for the 2020-2021 school year, scheduled to begin in mid-August in most places.  When National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle testified to the U.S. House  of Representatives Education and Labor Committee on June 15, she emphasized the urgency of the need for more federal assistance: “We thank the House for taking bold action to pass the HEROES Act, and we call on Mitch McConnell and the Senate to abandon their wait-and-see approach and act quickly. Schools are already planning for the upcoming school year and all of the new dilemmas—COVID-related and beyond—that it will bring.  They need the certainty that this legislation can offer.”

No Matter What Trump Says, School Choice Is Not the Civil Rights Issue of our Times

Twice in the past couple of weeks, President Donald Trump has been out promoting school choice as the civil rights issue of our times.

Trump went to Dallas,Texas, supposedly to discuss the recent tragic police killings of unarmed African Americans. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes what happened: “At Gateway Church in Dallas, Trump met with law enforcement officials, pastors and business owners and talked about his four-point plan to ‘build safety and opportunity and dignity’ for communities of color. He did not discuss why the police chief, sheriff and district attorney of Dallas—all of whom are African Americans, were not invited to the event focused on injustice and policing. Trump bashed public schools, calling them ‘bad government schools’ in which African Americans get ‘trapped’—although Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said at the same event that it was important for schools to reopen safely as soon as possible.”

Then last Tuesday, The Hill‘s Brett Samuels reported that in remarks at the White House Rose Garden, Trump once again mentioned school choice: “We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country… Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade and probably beyond because all children have to have access to quality education.”

I certainly agree with the President that all children must have access to quality education, but I also appreciate what Samuels noticed: “The comments describing school choice as the preeminent civil rights issue of the day appeared out of place as the nation is gripped by protests over the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.”

Perhaps the President has recently turned to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to help him define primary themes for his reelection campaign.  If so, some reminders are in order.

At the most basic level, the cost of school privatization is prohibitive in the midst of this COVID-19 recession we are all experiencing.  While many states are in essence supporting three kinds of schooling—traditional public schools, charter schools, and tuition vouchers for private and religious schools—in data released last week, the National Education Association demonstrates that unless Congress appropriates a large infusion of federal HEROES Act spending to prop up state budgets over the next three years, there will likely to be a loss of 1.9 million teachers and other school staff—about one-fifth of the public education workforce across the United States (see here and here).

For Shawgi Tell, a professor at New York’s Nazareth College, it is obvious why Trump’s idea of expanding school privatization is financially unsustainable: “Now is not the time to divert even more public funds to private businesses like charter schools…  The nation’s public schools have been suffering budget cuts for years, and now with the “COVID Pandemic” they will experience deeper funding cuts.  Yet the federal government and state governments continue to funnel huge sums of public funds to segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools that operate without transparency and (that) close regularly… Society needs a public authority that provides the human right to education with a guarantee in practice, which means fully funding all public schools and making sure high quality public schools are available to all for free in every neighborhood. Funding ‘free market’ arrangements in education while letting the nation’s public schools go underfunded is especially absurd given the repeated failure of the free market to produce stability and success for all.”

Political economist Gordon Lafer explains definitively why charter schools are fiscally unsustainable—robbing the Oakland Unified School District in California of $57.3 million each year that could be spent on the needs of the city’s public 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.”

Indigo Oliver reports for In These Times, that as a recession threatens public school budgets, one of the biggest private, for-profit, online charter school companies is positioning itself to profit: “On its most recent quarterly earnings call, Timothy Medina, chief financial executive for virtual charter school operator K12Inc., said, ‘We believe the effects of Covid-19 will be a lasting tailwind to online education.’ The company was founded in 2000 by former Wall Street investment banker and McKinsey & Co. consultant Ron Packard…. Since then, K12 has grown into one of the largest for-profit education companies in the world, with revenue topping $1 billion last year. Now, amid uncertainty about the future of in-person education, the company sees an opportunity to extend its reach even further.  K12 has been involved in targeted lobbying campaigns through the American Legislative Exchange Council for nearly two decades, and company executives suggested during the earnings call that they have been working with state legislators and school districts to expand the market for online learning this fall. They’ve also worked with the Heritage Foundation… to draft policy recommendations on Covid-19 Recovery efforts.  K12 operates more than 70 online schools, the majority of them tuition-free and publicly funded through partnerships with school districts.  K12 tuition-free online public schools account for nearly 30% of all virtual school enrollments in the country.”

Over the weekend, Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to lead the U.S. Department of Education as citizens have a right to expect—to provide guidance for getting the nation’s 98,000 public schools up and running in the fall: “The Education Department… is all but silent, issuing little in the way of guidance…. It’s not that DeVos isn’t hard at work—it’s just that she’s not devoting her efforts to what we would assume a federal education head should be prioritizing. For DeVos, the pandemic is no obstacle to pushing her long crusade for charter schools and ‘school choice’…. She’s attempted to reroute a portion of the $13.5 billion in the CARES Act dedicated for K-12 funding needs—money that’s supposed to be distributed based on poverty and need formulas—to independent and religious schools.”

Professor Tell concludes: “Treating education as a commodity or consumer good… is not the way forward… Social responsibilities must not be outsourced to private interests and subjected to the inhumanity of the ‘free market.’… Thousands of families have already been abandoned by… charter schools that have closed over the years for financial malfeasance and poor academic performance.”

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but they also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. Only in the public schools, which are governed democratically according to the law, can our society protect the rights of all children.

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

If High Stakes Standardized Testing Fades, Lots of Awful Punishments for Students, Teachers, and Schools Would Disappear

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Valerie Strauss published a very hopeful column: It Looks Like the Beginning of the End of America’s Obsession with Student Standardized Tests.  I hope she is right.  Her column covers current efforts to stop the requirement for college entrance exams and the wave of testing in primary and secondary public schools that was enshrined in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This post will be limited to examining the implications of the mandated standardized testing that, for two decades, has dominated America’s K-12 public schools.

Strauss begins: “America has been obsessed with student standardized tests for nearly 20 years.  Now it looks like the country is at the beginning of the end of our high-stakes testing mania—both for K-12 ‘accountability’ purposes and in college admissions.  When President George W. Bush signed the K-12 No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the country began an experiment based on the belief that we could test our way to educational success and end the achievement gap.  His successor, Barack Obama, ratcheted up the stakes of test scores under that same philosophy. It didn’t work, which came as no surprise to teachers and other critics. They had long pointed to extensive research showing standardized test scores are most strongly correlated to a student’s life circumstances.”

Strauss explains what’s different this year: “Now, we are seeing the collapse of the two-decade-old bipartisan consensus among major policymakers that testing was the key lever for holding students, schools and teachers ‘accountable.’ And it is no coincidence that it is happening aginst the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced educational institutions to revamp how they operate.  States are learning that they can live without them, having been given permission by the Department of Education to not give them this past spring… Former vice president Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and ahead of Trump in many polls, has tried to distance himself from the pro-testing policies of the Obama administration. He was not a cheerleader of testing during Obama’s two terms and has said recently he is opposed to high-stakes testing.  That’s not a promise that he will work to reduce it, but it is a promising suggestion.”

Strauss publishes six principles from FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, principles designed to guide state policy by reducing reliance on high-stakes testing:

  1. “Limit state standardized test requirements to no more than the minimum required by ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind) once each in reading and math in grades 3-8, plus once in high school, as well as one science test each in elementary, middle, and high school…
  2. “Seek federal waiver of testing requirements, at least for the 2020-2021 school year but preferably longer…
  3. “Terminate high-stakes consequences that rely on test scores for students (grade promotion tests, exit exams, course/program placement), teachers (bonuses, job ratings) and schools/districts (simplistic grading systems).
  4. “Protect young children by banning mass standardized testing before grade 3…
  5. “Enforce testing transparency and enhance public oversight…
  6. “Develop and implement performance-based assessment systems that enhance academic quality and equity by focusing on improvements in student work done over time.”

One of the most misunderstood issues about our current wave of testing is the impact of attaching high-stakes punishments to test scores. Test-and-punish was the central strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act.  It was assumed that, under the threat of sanctions, teachers would raise their expectations for their students and quickly raise test scores in even the public schools with low aggregate scores. You will remember that when the law passed in 2002, Congress gave America’s public schools a dozen years until which, by 2014, all American children were going to achieve proficiency.  Except it didn’t work.  We now know that Congress’s assumptions underneath No Child Left Behind failed to recognize many factors inside and outside of schools that affect standardized test scores.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the design and uses of standardized testing, explores serious problems that arise when high stakes are attached to testing.  First there is social science research evidence that attaching high stakes punishments for teachers and public schools when scores don’t rise in fact distorts the test results and at the same time undermines in several ways the entire educational experience for both students and teachers: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  In chapter after chapter, Koretz demonstrates that the consequences have been particularly devastating in schools where child poverty is concentrated; testing has narrowed the curriculum to the tested subjects, forced teachers to coach students and teach to the test, and even resulted in cheating by educators to make a school’s or school district’s scores look better.

Second, Koretz demonstrates that, because children in some schools start farther behind and face far greater obstacles, No Child Left Behind’s uniform timeline for the testing and the law’s application of high-stakes punishments embodies a bias against public schools in the poorest communities and their teachers: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

I believe FairTest’s third principle is designed to undo the greatest damage wrought by two decades of high stakes testing: “Terminate high-stakes consequences that rely on test scores for students (grade promotion tests, exit exams, course/program placement), teachers (bonuses, job ratings) and schools/districts (simplistic grading systems).”  As states have undertaken to follow the dictates of No Child Left Behind, they have attached punishments for the schools and school districts where scores have failed to rise or where they have risen too slowly.  States have branded those schools and school districts as failures, and continued in several significant ways to punish the nation’s most vulnerable schools instead of providing support.  Across the United States, public schools in the poorest communities continue to receive less funding than the schools in America’s wealthiest and most exclusive suburbs.

Here are the high stakes punishments—always based primarily on aggregate students’ scores on standardized tests—that states persist in imposing on the schools and school districts where scores are low:

The Third Grade Guarantee:  Students who do not meet the standardized test cut score for “proficient” in reading are in many states held back for another year in third grade.  This is despite that research shows that students are developmentally ready to begin reading at very different ages and that forcing children to read in Kindergarten (as the Third Grade Guarantee has encouraged many schools to push) may cause students to struggle and to dislike reading.  Holding children back has also been shown eventually to increase the chance that a student will drop out before graduating from high school.

High School Exit Exams and Graduation Tests:  By denying high school diplomas to students who don’t pass a graduation exit exam, many states continue to punish high school students even if these students have passed all the required classes.

Teacher EvaluationsSome states continue, according to what they promised Arne Duncan, to evaluate teachers by their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  When the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind, that federal agreement states had made to qualify for Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers was dropped. Tying teachers’ evaluations to their students’ standardized test scores remains in states’ policies as a remnant of another era.

State Report Cards:  FairTest mentions “simplistic grading systems” for school districts. I believe these grading systems may be the most damaging negative consequence of high stakes testing because all sorts of other serious punishments cascade from the state report card grades.  States were required by No Child Left Behind to rate school districts and individual schools primarily by aggregate standardized test scores. Many states created school district report cards that award school districts and particular schools letter grades: “A” through “F.”  One of the most damaging consequences is that real estate sales websites like Zillow and Great Schools have adopted these state-awarded grades to brand specific communities as desirable places to live and to brand others as undesirable. Because aggregate standardized test scores correlate most highly with family income, the state report card grades—based largely on the each school district’s aggregate students’ test scores—have created educational redlining that is driving racial and economic segregation across America’s metropolitan areas.

School Closures:  One of the original “turnaround” models under No Child Left Behind was school closure.  Some school districts have found ways to shutter or phase out low scoring schools.  In June of 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools, with over 80 percent in African American neighborhoods.  Research from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research showed that students didn’t do better on the whole in receiving schools.  A University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing published a profound book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, about widespread grieving across one African American neighborhood when public schools which had served for years as community anchors were shut down.

Targeting Particular School Districts for Privatization:  Some states use aggregate standardized test scores to identify so-called “failing school districts” and then to enable children in those districts to qualify for private school tuition vouchers. Some states locate charter schools primarily in the school districts where aggregate standardized test scores are lower. Instead of investing more financial support for smaller classes and more staff in the public schools in those school districts, some states take the voucher dollars or the per-pupil state funding for each charter school student right out of the local school district budget.

State School District Takeovers:   State takeovers are the ultimate damaging consequence  of the punishments imposed by state legislatures on their poorest and lowest scoring school districts.  Over the years many states have seized low scoring schools or school districts, imposed autocratic, state appointed CEOs to manage the schools or turned over the schools to a “state achievement authority.” Gradually after the long failure of such state seizures of schools and whole school districts, the schools are being returned to locally elected school boards, but the damage to local schools and the disruption of communities is a long, sad story.

If you are searching for good books to explore while you are at home due to the pandemic, check out Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade and Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard.

Once Again, Ohio Legislature Protects Rich School Districts and Preserves Funding Cuts for Poor Districts

Update: June 19, 2020, 7:30 PM:  Andrew Tobias of cleveland.com reports that Governor Mike DeWine has signed HB 164 that includes Senator Matt Dolan’s amendment restoring funding for 70 mostly wealthy suburban school districts.

In early May, after it became clear that COVID-19-driven business closures and growing layoffs had already resulted in a precipitous drop in tax receipts, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine cut the current Ohio budget by $775 million, including $300 million from the state’s 610 school districts. The Governor slashed money school districts had already budgeted. The cuts are not for next year; instead the Governor eliminated dollars that had been promised for the current fiscal year ending on June 30, in less than two weeks.

But last week, just prior the Ohio Legislature’s summer recess, Ohio State Senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns Cleveland’s Major League baseball team and who represents some of Ohio’s wealthiest exurban school districts, sneaked an amendment into Ohio House Bill 164, an education bill the Ohio Legislature passed and sent to Governor Mike DeWine for his signature. Dolan’s amendment would restore funding to many of the state’s wealthiest school districts, those with the greatest capacity to replace state dollars by passing additional local property tax millage.

The Dayton Daily News‘s Jeremy P. Kelley reports: “A late amendment to the bill will restore $23 million in funding to school districts mainly in wealthy communities. House Bill 164 ensures that between state cuts, CARES money and “offset payments” in this bill, no school district ends up getting less than 94% of its original state funding amount for 2019-20.”

On Tuesday, cleveland.com’s Rich Exner reported: “Legislation approved last week and awaiting the governor’s signature would restore part of the funding previously cut to 70 Ohio school districts, including 36 suburban districts in the Greater Cleveland, Akron area.”  Dolan’s amendment, “limits cuts to any one district to no more than 6% from original allocations for fiscal 2020, taking into account the net result of DeWine’s budget cut for the current fiscal year and anticipated federal CARES Act money that will extend into the next school year.”

Exner reminds readers that DeWine’s original method for cutting funding was designed to protect the state’s poorest school districts.  Dolan’s amendment instead protects the state’s richest districts.

Early in May when Governor DeWine announced the $300 million cut to K-12 education, cleveland.com’s Andrew Tobias reported: “DeWine suggested the education funding cuts will be weighted to relatively spare poor schools… ‘I have expressed here at these press conferences concern about students at schools that do not have the revenue—poor schools, poor children,’ he said. ‘And so that certainly is taken into consideration when we put that formula together.'”

Writing for the Ohio Capital Journal, Susan Tebben cited the explanation of Kimberly Murnieks, Director of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management: “She said the funding cuts were implemented through an ‘equalized per-pupil approach,’ meaning those with higher property wealth capacity would see a higher reduction because the state deemed them able to adjust to those reductions.”

State Senator Matt Dolan’s amendment to restore $23 million of the cuts to the state’s wealthiest school districts reverses the Governor’s plan to distribute the cuts with at least a measure of equity. In this week’s story for cleveland.com, Exner names some of the 70 school districts that will benefit from the amendment Dolan surreptitiously inserted into Ohio House Bill 164 last week: “The largest amounts in the state to be restored are for three Columbus-area districts: Olentangy ($2 million), Upper Arlington ($1.3 million), and Dublin ($1.1 million), plus the Sycamore district near Cincinnati ($1 million)…. But the largest chunk of the money would go to Cuyahoga County districts, with nearly $6 million split among 14 districts. The highest estimated amounts are for Solon ($819,921), Mayfield ($768,229), Strongsville ($623,954), Brecksville-Broadview Heights ($578,093), Rocky River ($539,431), and Westlake ($534,163).”

Dolan inserted his Ohio legislative amendment in the same week when Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland School District, testified before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee. Education Week‘s Evie Blad describes Gordon’s devastating testimony: “Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland School District, told the committee of potential factors that could force him to cut his district’s budget by 25 percent. These include a forecasted $23 million reduction in state aid; the elimination of $12 million in state funds designed to provide wrap-around services; a projected loss of $67 million local tax renewal, and a drop in local tax collections in the district returns to ‘recession era collection rates.’  Such a massive budget cut would force him to eliminate positions mid-year in the high-poverty district…. ”

Reading about Ohio State Senator Matt Dolan’s amendment to protect Ohio’s wealthiest school districts caused me to reflect on the prophetic words of the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a 20th century justice warrior, who was the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City: “Never has a government climbed off the backs of the upper class so fast to tap-dance on the backs of the poor. Never in recent history have we had so blatant a plutocracy: a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy.” (Credo, p. 53)

Federal CARES Act Public Education Relief Dollars Quietly Flow into the Coffers of Charter Schools and Private Schools

Many charter schools are taking advantage of their public/private status to double dip into more than one stream of federal CARES Act dollars. And Betsy DeVos has also been shifting the rules on distribution of CARES Act education dollars to support private schools at public schools’ expense. Promoters of school privatization are using every opportunity they can find to squeeze the public schools that serve 50 million of our children and undermine especially the public school districts serving our nation’s poorest big cities.

Charter Schools Skim CARES Act Dollars

The NY TimesErica Green reports: “Charter schools, including some with healthy cash balances and billionaire backers like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, have quietly accepted millions of dollars in emergency coronavirus relief from a fund created to help struggling small businesses stay afloat.”

By state law, charter schools must themselves be nonprofits, although, as we know, many are operated by for-profit Charter Management Organizations. Whether they are nonprofit or managed for-profit, they are all private contractors operating schools under a charter from the state. As private contractors providing a public function under state law, they receive per-pupil state aid provided by tax dollars. But charter school promoters like to call themselves “public charter schools” and keep the definition murky. Right now, however, a lot of charter schools are trying to operate as private businesses just to get CARES Act Payroll Protection Program dollars.

Erica Green explains: “Since their inception, charter schools have straddled the line between public schools and private entities. The coronavirus has forced them to choose. And dozens of them—potentially more because the Treasury Department has not disclosed a list—have decided for the purpose of coronavirus relief that they are businesses, applying for aid even as they continue to enjoy funding from the school budgets, tax-free status, and in some cases, healthy balances and the support of billionaire backers.”

Green describes Summit Public Schools, for example, a chain of charter schools on the West Coast.  She explains that, because charter schools are nonprofits, they qualify for the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program:  “Charter recipients of the forgivable loans include wealthy networks like Summit, whose most recent tax filings show it had assets totaling $43 million and an endowment, and it paid its chief executive nearly $500,000. The charter network receives donations from the philanthropic organizations of Mr. Bloomberg and Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Bezos Family Foundation.  And its business-savvy California board of directors includes Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Quibi and former chief executive of eBay.”  At a Summit board meeting, there was discussion about whether taking Paycheck Protection Program dollars would be the right thing to do: “Summit’s chief executive, Diane Tavenner, brushed away several concerns… including ‘public shaming.’  She urged the board to take the funds, saying that ‘the benefits far outweigh the risks.’  The board ultimately accepted the loan… at its May 18 meeting.  By that time, Ms. Tavenner said the money had come in, and with the recent announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom of California of 10 percent budget cuts next year, ‘further bolsters our case, as a nonprofit that’s operating schools, of our economic uncertainty.'”  All public schools in California will be affected by Gov. Newsom’s 10 percent budget cut, but only charter schools, like Summit Public Schools, who redefine their status in these CARES Act times as private businesses, can qualify for Paycheck Protection Program dollars.

In a new report, Are Oakland Charter Schools Double Dipping?, In the Public Interest and Parents United for Public Schools examine the acceptance of Paycheck Protection Program dollars by charter schools in California’s Oakland Unified School District.  Quoting the bill itself, In the Public Interest explains that the language Congress used to describe he Paycheck Protection Program makes the intent of the program clear: “With the COVID-19 emergency, many small businesses nationwide are experiencing economic hardship as a direct result of the Federal, State, and local public health measures that are being taken to minimize the public’s exposure to the virus. These measures, some of which are government-mandated, are being implemented nationwide and include the closures of restaurants, bars, and gyms. In addition, based on the advice of public health officials, other measures, such a keeping a safe distance from others or even stay-at-home orders, are being implemented, resulting in a dramatic decrease in economic activity as the public avoids malls, retail stores, and other businesses.”

However, “Despite that need and the limited funds available, Oakland’s charter school industry is heavily accessing this ‘first come, first served’ small business funding source, while at the same time receiving full continuity of education funding from the state, plus access to federal CARES Act (public school relief) funding. In other words, charter schools are receiving full funding to pay their employees as public schools while also seeking PPP funds to pay those same employees as private businesses.  Overall, the charter schools located within OUSD’s boundaries have received a total of at least $18,909,300” in CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program loans.

DeVos Rewrites Guidance to Drive Title I Equitable Services Dollars Away from Public Schools and Into Private School Coffers

It is not only charter school operators who are finding a way to use CARES Act dollars to shore up school privatization at the expense of the local public schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has released informal guidance, and now threatens to issue compulsory formal guidance to change the distribution formula for federal CARES Act public education relief dollars that Congress specified should be awarded according to the Title I Formula.  In addition to sending federal funds to public school districts serving poor children, Title I was designed additionally to award federal dollars to enable school districts to provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within their district boundaries.  DeVos has now demanded that per pupil CARES Act relief for private schools be based on each private school’s full enrollment, not on the number of the private school students who qualify for additional services because their families are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Public Funds Public Schools, a project of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains how Congress set up distribution of CARES Act dollars to public and private schools: “Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the national education law, requires public school districts to use part of their funding on ‘equitable services’ for low-income students attending private schools in their geographic area.  This fits with the purpose of Title I, which is to provide resources for low-income students who may need extra supports to succeed in school. The recent CARES Act states that school districts receiving federal relief funds must provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools ‘in the same manner’ as provided under Title I of ESSA. But Secretary DeVos’ guidance tells districts to do things differently than federal law requires, instructing them to calculate the amount they must spend on equitable services based on all students in the district who attend private schools rather than the number of low-income students in private schools. This dramatically decreases the federal emergency funds available for many public schools….”  (emphasis in the original)

Independent Media Institute education writer, Jeff Bryant shows what DeVos’s reinterpretation of Congress’s plan for redistributing CARES Act education relief dollars will mean for vulnerable public school districts: “Should DeVos get her way, the impact will be devastating on struggling school districts… In Passaic (New Jersey), where the majority of public school students are poor, the district will need to reserve $1.4 million for private school students instead of $300,000….”

A seasoned education reporter with experience in Ohio, now writing for The 74, Patrick O’Donnell describes outrage across Ohio about CARES Act money, urgently needed in Ohio’s urban districts which serve masses of poor children, but now scheduled, according to DeVos’s new guidance, to support private schools. Public schools across Ohio are desperate because, due to the COVID-19 recession, Governor Mike DeWine has already slashed state funding for public schools in this fiscal year ending June 30 by $300 million. O’Donnell quotes a letter sent by Ohio’s “Big 8” urban school districts demanding that Governor DeWine ignore DeVos’s new guidance and abide by the distribution plan Congress established in the CARES Act itself: “The past few months have laid bare the inequities that exist across our state, which is why Ohio must distribute the CARES dollars as they were directed to by Congress… Following watered down guidance from the USDOE will weaken Ohio’s ability to address the unique needs of low-income children, children with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.” In Ohio, O’Donnell reports that losses as CARES Act dollars are rerouted to private schools will be sizeable unless DeWine joins eight other states refusing to follow DeVos’s new guidance: “DeVos’s approach would cost the Cleveland school district $2.3 million and the Cincinnati schools $4.9 million.”

On Monday, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler summed up Betsy DeVos’s failure to support the nation’s public schools which DeVos’s own Department of Education is supposed to protect:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long believed that the federal government should have little to do with education. This spring, with schools facing their most significant crisis in decades, DeVos has stuck to that conviction… The coronavirus, she has said, offers a ‘silver lining,’ showing Americans that traditional schooling is not the only way. ‘This really is a moment for transformation,’ she told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck in April… When Congress passed its pandemic relief package, it included $13.5 billion for K-12 schools, most of it to be distributed using a formula that favors high-poverty schools. But DeVos chose to distribute the money using a calculation that diverts millions of additional dollars to private schools—and away from high-poverty public schools. She said the law allowed her the flexibility to do so. Leading Democrats and school leaders lambasted the move. Even Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a DeVos ally, disagreed… She also used $180 million of the federal relief money to create a ‘microgrant’ program that will allow parents to pay for educational expenses, including private school tuition… ‘The problem is here she is again standing up for private schools and public school folks feel like she’s never protected or cared about them.’ said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.  ‘As far as I can tell, she’s pretty much played to type.'”

When Mike Petrilli and the Fordham Institute, lovers of school privatization, criticize DeVos for failing to stand up for public schools, you know there’s an enormous problem. The redistribution of federal dollars to private schools and to charter schools is not inconsequential in these times when the National Education Association recently documented the likely loss of 1.9 million jobs from America’s public schools within the next three years, staff cuts resulting from the recession-driven collapse of state education budgets. The untenable reduction of educators across the nation’s public schools will occur unless, on top of the CARES Act, Congress enacts additional relief in the form of the HEROES Act—passed already in the U.S. House of Representatives but awaiting action in the U.S. Senate.  Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has no business undermining efforts by Congress to keep class size manageable and to preserve the jobs of essential school staff—teachers, counselors, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, and librarians.

Randi Weingarten Calls State Budget Crisis a Five Alarm Fire. Why Can’t Most of Us See It?

Last week I was out walking to get some exercise when I saw an old friend who is a retired school superintendent.  Standing a careful six feet away, he greeted me this way: “So, where’s the money going to come from?”  We talked for a minute or two, and as we parted, he asked again: “So where’s the money going to come from?”

If you read NY Times‘ reporter, Erica Green’s article about last Wednesday’s meeting of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, you will see that the topic of money and budgets threads quietly underneath the Senators’ conversation, but you’ll mostly read about a discussion of the logistics of opening school: “Across the country, school leaders are beginning to roll out plans to welcome more than 50 million students back, which include procuring 50 million masks; flooding schools with nurses, aides and counselors; and staggering schedules to minimize class size.  But the high-dollar demands to meet public health guidelines and make up for setbacks that have disproportionately affected low-income students, students of color and those with disabilities could cripple their budgets.”

Green continues, citing data provided by the American Association of School Administrators: “The School Superintendents Association has estimated that districts would incur nearly $1.8 million in costs to meet federal health guidelines, from $640 for no-touch thermometers (one per school) to $448,000 for additional custodial staff; that is just for an average school district of about 3,700 students.”

Half way through her coverage of the Senate HELP Committee’s hearing, Green slides into the meat of the story: “The American Federation of Teachers on Wednesday released a cost analysis estimating that schools would need $116.5 billion for instructional staff, distance learning, before-and after-school care and transportation.  In another report released Wednesday, the National Education Association estimated that without federal relief, the education system would lose 1.9 million education jobs.  The American Federation of Teachers said budget cuts had already cost local public education systems more than 750,000 jobs, twice what they lost during the recession of 2008.”

What is very confusing about Green’s article is that she has buried the lede.  Her NY Times‘ report on problems for public schools neglects to locate the logistical challenges of opening schools during the pandemic in the context of an already alarming education budget crisis across all the states. Very kindly, however, Green provides links to those two important reports.

The American Federation of Teachers begins: “The safe and effective reopening of America’s schools requires two types of federal action. First, it requires a substantial federal investment to address the impact of budget cuts that have already cost local public education systems more than 750,000 jobs, twice what they lost during the Great Recession. And second, it requires a federal investment to help pay for the costs of a safe reopening. We estimate that, for public schools, this second piece will cost at least $116.5 billion… A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that public education started the school year employing 60,000 fewer staff than prior to the Great Recession.  New numbers from the census show, when adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth, that 20 states still spend less on K-12 education than before the recession. We entered the current crisis without having recovered from the last.”

Green also shares a link to the National Education Association’s concise graphic analysis covering the fiscal condition of all the states and the impact of the recession on their public schools. Once you look at the data, all the rest will fall into place. My retired superintendent friend named the problem: “So, where’s the money going to come from?”

If you examine the National Education Association’s analysis carefully (I printed out a copy for myself to make it easier to scan all the columns covering all the states.), you will grasp what your own state’s budget collapse—resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic job losses and business shutdowns—is going to mean for your state’s public schools during the next three years.  You will also understand what the state budget crisis—aggregated across the states—is going to mean over Fiscal Years 2020, 2021, and 2222, for the children attending our nation’s 98,000 public schools. NEA’s first three columns explain (1) the “estimated decline in state general fund revenues” in each state as tax dollars decline, (2) the “estimated decline in (each state’s)  support for elementary and secondary education and higher education” as state budgets collapse, and (3) the “potential job losses” in each state’s K-12 public education and public colleges and universities as state funding is seriously reduced.

Here is a bit of additional context. Because K-12 public education, defined in all the state constitutions as among each state’s top priorities, makes up a high percentage of all the state budgets, an overall state budget crisis inevitably devastates every state’s public schools. The National Association of State Budget Officers reports: “Elementary and secondary education remained the second largest area of total state spending in fiscal 2019, representing 19.5 percent.  When looking only at general fund spending, elementary and secondary education remains the largest category in fiscal 2019, representing 35.6 percent of general fund expenditures….”

Find yourself a magnifying glass to read the National Education Association’s analysis at the end of the table. The main point is crystal clear: “States are experiencing a precipitous decline in revenues as a result of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Using current economic projections, NEA has analyzed the impact on state revenues over three fiscal years—2020, 2021, and 2022—and the corresponding impact it will have on the ability of states to fund public education. NEA estimates that without additional federal emergency aid, state general fund revenues in support of education could fall by about $200 billion affecting about one-fifth of the education workforce after accounting for the use of state rainy day funds and funding available under the CARES Act.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the HEROES Act, which promises additional relief for state budgets. NEA explains how the HEROES Act, if enacted by the U.S. Senate—would support PreK-12 public schools: “The HEROES Act, which has passed the House, would help stem some of the state revenue shortfall. It includes $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dedicated to education, to remain available until September 30, 2022, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. The Secretary of Education would make grants to the Governor of each State for support of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education and, as applicable, early childhood education programs and services. States would be required to allocate 65 percent of the funds received as subgrants to local educational agencies in proportion to the amount of funds the local educational agencies received under part A of Title I of the ESEA in the most recent fiscal year…  States would retain 5 percent to support statewide elementary, secondary, and postsecondary activities. The grants to states under the SFSF are intended to maintain or restore State and local fiscal support for elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. A local educational agency, State institution of higher education, or other entity that receives funds must, to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.  Funds may be used to support hourly workers, such as education support professionals, classified school employees, and adjunct and contingent faculty. NEA estimates that the SFSF would restore or save at least 825,000 jobs in elementary and secondary and higher education… As importantly, the HEROES Act includes $915 billion in other aid to state, local, territory, and tribal governments that could be used to support public education and backfill revenue needed to support other critical services upon which students and their families rely. This aid would also relieve the pressure on states to reduce their support for public education.”

When it comes to next school year, the real issue is going to be ensuring there are enough adults in America’s schools to supervise children and adolescents, to serve them lunch, to keep the buildings clean enough to prevent the spread of the virus, and to drive the school buses.  Schools will need enough school nurses during a pandemic health crisis, enough counselors, school psychologists, and social workers to support children and families who have been struggling with isolation and economic challenges, and enough librarians to excite children about reading books they may have forgotten about. Most important, schools will need enough teachers to make children secure after months of separation, to help them catch up, to support students’ social skills, and to stimulate them to think, imagine, and learn together.  And public schools will neither be able to serve children well nor protect social distancing if class size grows to 40 students.

You will remember that during 2018 and 2019, #Red4Ed schoolteachers went on strike across a number of states and urban school districts to demand that states address school staffing shortages that— a decade after the Great Recession in 2008—remained below pre-recession staffing levels.  All the experts predict that the current recession will be deeper and more devastating to public schools. And like the 2008 Great Recession, the COVID-19 recession will hurt most severely the school districts which serve masses of very poor children; these are the school districts which struggle to raise local property tax dollars and which depend most on state assistance. Please do look carefully at the NEA’s new report.  Our children’s experience in the coming years will be shaped by how Congress responds to the data NEA presents.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten calls the drop in state budgets a national emergency: “This is a five-alarm fire. Since late April we have been exploring ways to safely reopen school buildings in the fall. Our children need it, and our families deserve it. Our educators want it, and the economy won’t recover without it. But if schools can’t get the money they need to safely reopen, then they won’t reopen, period.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the HEROES Act. The bill awaits action in the U.S. Senate, but Senator Mitch McConnell doesn’t seem to think there is any urgency.

Ohio Legislative Democrats Remind Ohio Congressional Delegation that Ohio’s Public Schools Desperately Need More Federal COVID-19 Relief

Thank you, members of the Democratic Caucus of the Ohio Legislature, for reaching out to members of the Ohio Congressional delegation on behalf of urgently needed additional federal COVID-19 relief funding for our state’s public schools.

On June 4, Ohio legislative Democrats sent a formal letter to Ohio’s Congressional representatives and senators “to request that you… approve new funding for local school systems in the next COVID-19 supplemental appropriations bill. Parents, teachers, and students in the communities… we represent are depending on us to build the foundation for a more resilient future.”

In their letter, Ohio’s state legislators reminded their counterparts in Congress that Governor Mike DeWine has already cut $775 million from the fiscal budget that ends June 30, “including $300 million from public schools and $76 million from public colleges and universities.  These cuts are already causing immense shortfalls for public school districts….”

Noting that Ohio is one of the states where funding for public schools still falls short of the pre-2008-recession level, Ohio’s legislative Democrats ask, “that Congress increase investment in the Education Stabilization Fund by at least $100 billion for K-12 education to local districts to weather this storm.”  The letter argues that public schools will need additional money to take precautions for the safe opening of school next fall and that, in case schools need to rely on remote learning during a second wave of the pandemic, many school districts need to further expand what remains limited access to technology.  They add: “We ask that Congress provide additional funds to the states for Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act students in the 2020-2021 school year, so that schools may offer summer school and after-school programs. We want to provide our children an opportunity to make up for lost time, so we must invest in increased services.”

In their letter, Ohio’s legislative Democrats “thank the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the HEROES Act and urge the U.S. Senate to pass it without further delay.”

In a statement on its website, Ohio Public Education Partners thanks Senator Teresa Fedor and Representative Phil Robinson for leading this initiative on behalf of their colleagues: “Sen. Fedor moved the initiative forward in the Ohio Senate and Representative Phil Robinson reinforced the effort with the Ohio House, and 44 members of the Democratic caucus of the Ohio Legislature signed… (the) letter.”

A coalition of members of the Wisconsin State Legislature sent a similar letter to the Wisconsin Congressional delegation in May.

The Director of Ohio Public Education Partners, Jeanne Melvin hopes other state legislatures will formally present the desperate fiscal condition of local school districts to their Congressional delegations: “Public Education Partners joins Wisconsin Public Education Network to strongly encourage other state legislatures to consider sending letters to Congress with the same message. Our nation’s public school districts will continue to experience a tremendous loss in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there will likely be massive funding freezes in the second year of the fiscal biennium. These shortfalls will be devastating to public schools without appropriate federal aid.”