New Federal Case Launched in Rhode Island to Establish Educational Equity as a Federally Protected Right

If you think about it, you’ll remember that for more than forty years, school equity cases have been filed under the education clauses of the 50 state constitutions. That’s because, in a 1973 decision, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the Warren Burger, U.S. Supreme Court decided that, because education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, education is not protected as a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment.  But late last month a new federal lawsuit was filed, a case intended by the plaintiffs and their attorneys to establish that education is indeed a fundamental right, protected for all students by the U.S. Constitution.

The Associated Press’s Jennifer McDermott reports: “The Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Rhode Island Center for Justice filed the lawsuit.  Michael Rebell, lead counsel and a professor at Teachers College said citizenship has always been the prime purpose of education in the United states and schools have increasingly failed to carry out this responsibility nationwide.  Rhode Island, in particular, stands out because there is no requirement for students to take a civics course and no indication that teachers receive specialized training to teach the topic, among other issues, Rebell added.  He said the case is timely because, ‘we’re living in troubled times, Our democratic institutions are being challenged like never before.'”

The NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the goals of the plaintiffs: “The lawyers for the plaintiffs hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and potentially prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.  ‘Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions comes with the young people and the next generation,’ said Michael Rebell, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. ‘What we’re really seeking is for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to take a strong stance on getting back to first principles on what the school system was established for in the United States.'”

Michael Rebell is a seasoned attorney when it comes to educational equity.  He was the lead council in the successful New York case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York.  When, in a 2001 decision after several appeals, New York’s highest court ordered the state to invest more and distribute the funds more equitably, the Court defined civic preparation as a central purpose of public education. In a recent article for The Kappan, Rebell quotes that section of the New York court decision: “The purpose of public education today is to provide students the skills they need to ‘function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.'”

Why did the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College partner with the Rhode Island Center for Justice to launch a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island? Besides that the state lacks any civics requirement in its curriculum and lacks as well any requirement that teachers receive training in this area, there is evidence that the state’s provision of education is particularly weak for its many English language learners.  Dana Goldstein explains: “Beyond civics classes, the suit also argues that the state’s neediest children, particularly Latino immigrants and students with special needs, are failing to acquire the basic academic skills they need to effectively exercise their rights to free speech and voter participation.  Among eighth grade English language learners in 39 states, those in Rhode island ranked last in math and second to last in reading on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

The lead plaintiff in the new case is Aleita Cook, a student at a Providence high school. For The Atlantic, Alia Wong describes the class-action lawsuit named for her: “The 14 plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo, all public school students or parents on behalf of their children, accuse the state of Rhode Island of providing an education so inferior that the state has failed to fulfill its duties under the U.S. Constitution. But given that there is no explicit guarantee of education in the Constitution, the lawyers are making a sort of bank-shot argument: that in denying citizens of Rhode Island a quality education, the state is, in essence, preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights…. That this denial falls unevenly across the population is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises people equal protection under the law.”

In his recent piece in The Kappan, Michael Rebell himself makes the case for civics education in the context of over fifteen years of No Child Left Behind’s focus on basic literacy in two tested subjects— language arts and mathematics: “Civic participation—whether as voters, jurors, or people working together to make a change in the community—requires a working knowledge of many subjects, including history, politics, economics, science, and technology.  The educational priorities established in the No Child Left Behind Act and now perpetuated in the Every Student Succeeds Act stress competency in basic literacy and mathematics, but not in civics, history, world languages, social studies, economics and the arts.  Particularly in schools with constrained resources, what gets tested is what gets taught; the lower-priority status of civics, history, social studies, economics, and the arts in state accountability systems has meant that schools have substantially reduced the time students spend engaged in these areas.  In the mid-20th century, three civics-related courses were common in high school: civics, problems of democracy, and American government.  Today, civics and problems of democracy courses have largely disappeared. In many states, no civics courses at all are required; in others, the only mandate is for a one-semester course in American government.”

Writing this week on the importance of civic preparation in public schools, education law professor Derek Black also makes a strong case for increasing access to civics education: “Democracy is a double edged sword.  It places political power in the hands of the people, but to succeed, those people need to be informed well enough to make smart decisions.  An educated citizenry cannot be manipulated. Nor easily oppressed. An educated citizenry will guard its freedom jealously  And when these citizens get it wrong—and they will—they will disagree with one another.  And this slows down any major moves in the wrong direction.  So the inherent tension of democracy revolves around the need to place power in the hands of people who may or may not be well-informed.  Our founders—the people who wrote the federal and state constitutions we live under—firmly believed the only solution was to make sure we have a public education system that cultivates the skills that citizens need to participate in democracy.”

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Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools Tells New Congress: Fully Fund Title I and IDEA

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker carefully refutes some long-running and persistent myths about the funding of public education—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make any difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Assessing the overall impact of public investment in education, Baker concludes: “Rigorous, well-designed, and policy relevant empirical research finds that: Money matters for schools and in determining school quality and student outcomes. More specifically, substantive sustained, and targeted state school finance reforms can significantly boost short-term and long-run student outcomes and reduce gaps among low-income students and their more advantaged peers. Money matters in common sense ways. Increased funding provides for additional staff, including reduced class sizes, longer school days and years, and more competitive compensation. Cuts do cause harm. The equity of student outcomes is eroded by reducing the equity of real resources across children of varied economic backgrounds. (Educational Inequality and School Finance p. 101, emphasis in the original)

Early in the fall, in hopes that the 2018 midterm election might bring a more hopeful climate for adequately funding public education, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) published a major report, Confronting the Education Debt to define its members’ priorities for addressing decades of failure adequately to fund schools serving concentrations of poor children and children of color.  At the federal level full funding is an important goal for two long-underfunded programs:

  • AROS’s report traces the history of Title I: “The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a core component of then-President Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Title I of the ESEA targets federal dollars to schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty.  The authorization embedded in Title I—then and still today—allows Congress to provide an additional 40 percent above each state’s per pupil spending base, for each Title I-eligible child, to allow their schools to provide supplemental supports such as extra reading assistants and parent engagement specialists.  Having set that 40 percent authorization in the law, Congress immediately failed to fully fund it, not only in 1965 but in every year since.”  (emphasis in the original)
  • AROS also addresses the second primary federal funding stream for public schools: “In 1975, a decade after passing the ESEA, Congress sought to address the educational needs of students with disabilities.  The individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to identify students with disabilities and to provide them the supports and services necessary to achieve academically.  In the law, Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of that additional cost, with local and state funds covering the remaining amount.  Once again, having established the formula, Congress failed to invest in it.  Federal funding of IDEA has never approached the promised 40 percent mark.”

In Confronting the Education Debt, AROS tallies the difference in the 12 year period between 2005 and 2017—the length of time it takes for a student to move through 12 grades of primary and secondary education—between what Congress established as the 40 percent funding levels for Title I and IDEA and what Congress appropriated: a gap of $347 billion for Title I and $233 billion for IDEA.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our schools is clearly adopting an aggressive strategy to press the new Congress to address its priorities. Writing last week in The Hill, AROS co-directors Keron Blair and Jay Travis challenge Congress to address its long failure fully to fund Title I and the IDEA: “As the dust settles from last month’s midterm elections, parents, students, community members and educators of America are… preparing for the long fight ahead for the public schools that our students deserve.  We are working to remedy decades of fiscal austerity in our public schools.  Between 2005 and 2017, public schools in the US. were underfunded by $580 billion in federal dollars alone—money that was specifically targeted to support some of our most vulnerable students.  Recouping all those funds won’t be easy.  However, with new voices in Congress joining forces with longtime education champions like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)—the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—and Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-Conn.)—the incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the education budget—a lot can get done for America’s students and their public schools.  When it comes to public education, voters don’t want disinvestment and less regulation. They want more investment, smaller class-sizes, greater accountability for privately-operated charter schools, and school climates that are respectful and safe for students and staff.  Those demands were at the forefront when educators took to the streets… last spring.”

In addition to fully funding Title I and the IDEA, Blair and Travis name three other AROS priorities: invest in school infrastructure and technology, establish 25,000 Sustainable Community Schools by 2025 to support families coping with poverty, and end the teacher shortage by increasing wages for educators.

Clearly AROS’s priorities have already gained some traction among Democrats in Congress.  On December 4, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced a Keep Our Promise Act to “put Congress on a fiscally responsible path to fully fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on a mandatory basis.”

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a coalition of 10 national organizations which support urgently needed investment in the schools of our nation’s poorest communities: Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel Network, Journey 4 Justice Alliance, New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Network, and the Service Employees International Union.

New from the National Education Policy Center: “How School Privatization Opens the Door for Discrimination”

Last week this blog explored some of the ways the expansion of school choice ends up creating injustice and inequality. The National Education Policy Center just published a new report, How School Privatization Opens the Door for Discrimination, in which Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University further investigate one particular aspect of the same topic: how privately operated charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers fail, often quite legally, to protect the civil rights rights of their students and staff.

Mead and Eckes explain: “Our review of relevant laws indicates that voucher and charter school programs open the door to discrimination because of three phenomena.  First, federal law defines discrimination differently in public and private spaces. Second, state legislatures have largely ignored the issue of non-discrimination while constructing voucher laws and have created charter laws that fail to comprehensively address non-discrimination. And third, because private and charter schools have been given authority to determine what programs to offer, they have the ability to attract some populations while excluding others.”

The new report briefly summarizes the history of attempts to ensure that public schools protect the rights of all students: “Whether and to what degree schools should be available to all children without regard to race, national origin, religion, immigration status, first language, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability has a long litigious history.  While it is routine now to observe that public schools must enroll all students, that understanding evolved over time beginning with litigation in the 1950s.  As illustrated by the decisions in Brown v. the Board of Education, Lau v. Nichols, Plyler v. Doe, and Mills v. the Board of Education of the District of Columbia, it took many brave plaintiffs and unflinching jurists to reach the conclusion that the term ‘public’ excludes no one and that equal educational opportunity defines our collective obligation to our nation’s children.  Congress reinforced those rulings by enacting a series of federal laws to emphasize that discrimination has no place in public education… Despite such hard fought judicial and legislative battles, public schools still struggle to realize that aspirational ideal.  Persistent achievement gaps, funding disparities, over-representation of students of color in special education, under-representation of students or color in advanced placement and honors programs, and the continued overuse of suspension and expulsion all suggest that public schools and the state and local officials who operate them have much work to do before equal educational opportunity is achieved.”  But, as regards public schools, laws on the books at the federal level offer plaintiffs and their allies a path to seek equal treatment through the courts.

However: “As states have created new forms of publicly funded educational options in the form of voucher programs and charter schools, issues of discrimination have surfaced in these programs as well.  In fact, the first instances of publicly funded school choice were expressly designed to discriminate by closing public schools and providing tax-supported vouchers to private schools that enrolled only white children… The reality is that educational privatization and discrimination have always been entwined.”

The report provides examples of the many ways federal law protects the rights of students in public schools but applies differently in voucher and charter schools—including the Supreme Court’s permission of the use of public vouchers in religious schools that openly promote the faith traditions of the schools’ operators, despite that the First Amendment precludes such a violation of religious liberty. The Court in this case ruled that the vouchers are awarded not directly to the school but instead to the parents, who then choose a school.  Mead and Eckes explore the different application in private and charter schools of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and describe the many ways charter schools and private schools receiving vouchers skirt federal requirements mandating the provision of appropriate services for students with disabilities. Finally, private religious schools accepting vouchers have been made exempt from compliance with laws to protect LGBT students and staff.

The researchers describe conflicting court decisions across several states defining charter schools. Some of these decisions define charter schools as public (due to their funding stream) while other states call them private contractors.  For example, an Arizona court found that a charter school operates as a private actor: “(T)he Ninth Circuit found that while  a private entity might be considered a state actor for some purposes, it is still possible to function as a private actor in other ways.  In other words. the constitutional protection of due process was unavailable to this public charter school teacher because a private company—not a governmental unit—employed him.  Likewise, a California state appellate court reasoned that charter schools are exempt from many laws that govern school districts.”

Neither have states been vigilant about forcing charter schools—in their operation and programming—to fulfill the promises they advertise about serving the needs of all groups of students:  “(T)he majority of federal requirements (at least, those pertaining to students) do apply to charter schools.  And yet, research frequently documents that charter schools enroll more homogeneous populations and tend to have fewer children with special needs.  Why?  One reason is that while charter school laws may include non-discrimination declarations, they may not include any requirement for authorizers to examine schools’ policies and practices around recruitment, enrollment, and expulsion, nor to review student attrition data.”  And, “(P)rivate and charter schools have the authority to determine their educational programs…. For example, if private schools do not have to—and do not—provide special programming for children learning English, it would be no surprise that few English language learners apply or enroll there. The same is true for children with disabilities.”

Finally, federal laws need updating to incorporate protections in an era when school privatization has expanded: “The federal laws that bind public schools were developed when charter and voucher programs did not exist. It seems apparent that Congress must review those provisions so that they better reflect the ways states now use public dollars to support charter and voucher schools… State legislators also need to examine their charter and voucher school laws to ensure they have taken adequate steps to address non-discrimination. While these laws may have been developed as an experiment with educational deregulation, we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars.”

In his new book on education finance, Bruce Baker comments on our society’s mistake about school choice: the belief that expanding publicly funded school choice will result in justice for poor children:  “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Julie Mead and Suzanne Eckes’ new report demonstrates the many ways charter schools and private schools receiving public tuition vouchers are unequal specifically because of their failure to protect by law each student’s right to equal access, equal opportunity, and the provision of programming appropriate to the child’s needs.

More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

Chicago Teachers at 15-School Acero Charter Chain Strike: First Walkout at a Unionized Charter School Network

In the first walkout at a U.S. charter school network, 500 teachers at Chicago’s Acero (formerly UNO) charter school chain went on strike Tuesday.

Acero Charter Schools’ teachers are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union.  While teachers in a number of Chicago charter schools had formed their own ChiACTS union, at the end of last January, ChiACTS merged with the 28,000 member Chicago Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers local.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein reports that Acero charter schools serve 7,000 students. “Educators at Acero earn up to $13,000 less than their counterparts at traditional public schools in Chicago…. The chief executive of Acero, Richard I. Rodriguez, earns about $260,000 annually to manage 15 schools, a similar salary to that of Janice K. Jackson, the chief executive of the Chicago Public School system, which includes over 500 schools.”

In a press release, the Chicago Teachers’ Union describes critical issues on which the school’s management team and the CTU bargaining team remain far apart: “class size, sanctuary school community language in the contract, fair compensation for paraprofessionals, and lower class sizes, which are currently set at 32 students per class—four more than what Chicago Public Schools seeks to meet at district-run schools.  CTU members have called those class sizes both outrageous and unsafe for students, particularly children in kindergarten through second grade, where one adult simply does not have the capacity to safely supervise, let alone educate 32 young children.”  Teachers at Acero charters are also required to work longer hours and for a longer school year than teachers in the Chicago Public Schools—20 percent more, writes Laura Meckler of the Washington Post.

For the Chicago Sun-Times, Manny Ramos, Alice Yin and Lauren FitzPatrick explain why sanctuary school community language has become a bargaining issue for teachers at Acero Charter Schools, where 90 percent of the students are Latino-Latina: “Teachers on the picket lines Tuesday stressed the importance of sanctuary school protections for their students and families, a designation that bars federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement from entering campus without a court order, warrant, or subpoena.  Such working conditions for staff are bargainable for charter schools, though not for Chicago Public Schools, union attorney Robert Bloch said.”  While the right to public education is protected for non-citizen children by the 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established 14th Amendment protection of the right to public primary and secondary education for children who are undocumented, teachers at Acero Charter Schools clearly feel they need to reassure families that parents’ and students’ rights and safety are protected in their charter school buildings.

The Sun-Times report continues, describing a teacher’s focus on sanctuary status: “Yecenia Iturve, a fourth-grade teacher at Acero Schools, said this is one of the key issues that forced her to walk off the job Tuesday.  Many of her students have openly expressed their anxiety to her about their family’s immigration status. ‘Being a sanctuary school means that our students, and their family have a safe place to come to.  Our students need to know this is a safe place for them.'”

In her coverage at the Washington Post, Laura Meckler establishes important context for this first strike by unionized teachers at a charter school network: “More than 500 teachers and other staff members at 15 charter schools operated by the nonprofit Acero Schools walked out of the classroom after failing to reach a new contract… The educators are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has organized about 25 percent of charter schools in the city. Nationally, about 11 percent of charters operate under collective bargaining agreements….  Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, and they have drawn support from school-choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but also some Democrats.  Nationally, nearly 7,000 charter schools serve about 3 million students.”

Why School Choice Ends Up Creating Injustice and Inequality

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, school funding expert, Bruce Baker critiques the rapid expansion of charter schools for siphoning off dollars from state and local public school budgets.  Baker also addresses the philosophical contention frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few.

Our society now accepts the essential promise of liberty defined as freedom from enslavement and domination. We also would like to believe that our society provides freedom from want, and many argue that school choice offers opportunity to those who have been disempowered by poverty.  The wealthy can pay for whatever kind of education they want to choose for their children.  So… what about helping poorer people with freedom of choice—at public expense—in an education marketplace? Won’t that result in what the “portfolio school reform” think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, promises: “a great school for every child in every neighborhood”?

Baker argues that more choice will not necessarily result in equal access to quality schooling.  Instead, equal opportunity can be better protected systemically: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Three charter school news reports—this week alone—demonstrate the truth of Baker’s contention that justice can best be served in an education system which protects—by law—students’ rights as well as the public stewardship of tax dollars.

Detroit: Charter School Promises Miracles, Achievement Plummets, School Closes

In the first example, for Chalkbeat, Koby Levin describes the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, while signs on the grass surrounding Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice declared: “Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy… Now Enrolling 9th-12th Grades,” parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea behind charter schools is that the marketplace will regulate. Parents are expected to demand quality, and the schools they don’t choose will eventually close in what is dreamed to be an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders.

But running a school was much more difficult than Delta Prep’s founders expected, and the management company the board hired couldn’t fulfill the founders’ promises: “Delta officials had promised that ’90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.’ But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity. Officials said they would boost student achievement… Their goal: ‘85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.’  But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.  If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire.  When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic.”

At fault in Detroit? A complicated mix of good intentions and huge problems promises couldn’t solve. Lack of regulation. Well-intentioned founders who hired a management company that spent too little on instruction. A shortage of state funds in Michigan which has failed adequately to fund traditional public schools and charter schools.  Students whose needs were greater than the school’s founders anticipated. A competitive marketplace where parents and students lured by advertising and promises were misled in every way.  After Delta Prep ended up on the state’s watchlist as a low performing school, only 264 students out of the 350 who were expected showed up this fall. As students and their state funding fell away, the school was forced to close by late September.

Levin concludes: “Delta Prep’s sudden demise added to a two-decade drumbeat of school closures that has left Detroit’s education landscape in turmoil, and has forced thousands of students to endure the serious social and academic consequences of unneccesarily changing schools.”

Perfectly Legal: Arizona Lawmaker Profits from Charter Schools and Helps Make Laws to Enrich Himself

This Arizona story isn’t so much about how charter school expansion has disrupted students’ right to an education.  Instead it is about how unscrupulous charter school operators rip off the tax dollars intended for public education and urgently needed by public schools. For the Arizona Republic, Craig Harris profiles Eddie Farnsworth, a member of the Arizona House, and elected to the Arizona Senate on November 6, 2018: “When the Benjamin Franklin charter chain completes the purchase next month of its four East Valley campuses from founder Eddie Farnsworth, ownership will shift to a newly formed nonprofit company.  But the $569 million deal, from which Farnsworth will pocket $13.9 million, won’t be the state lawmaker’s last payday from the schools he’s owned for decades.  Records show he will loan Benjamin Franklin $2.8 million over seven years, earning himself $478,000 in interest while ensuring the schools have enough cash to keep operating.  He’ll collect another $79,600 a year in rent on the building that currently serves as Benjamin Franklin’s corporate headquarters.  And Farnsworth, who has been a staunch defender of charter schools at the Arizona legislature, will continue to be paid as a consultant to Benjamin Franklin… Meanwhile. the new nonprofit organization formed to buy the schools will have little cash, requiring it to borrow the $2.8 million from Farnsworth in order to have 60 days of working capital…”

Farnsworth understands how to make money from the unregulated charter sector he has helped create through the legislature’s hands-off stance: “Farnsworth defended the sale, which makes him the latest charter-school owner in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry to receive a multimillion-dollar payday. Benjamin Franklin will have more long-term stability by converting from a for-profit business to a nonprofit company, he said.”  There is considerable confusion about whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but always operated by private contractors are private schools or some sort of public schools. It would seem very clear that Arizona legislator, Eddie Farnsworth, best understands the private, marketplace nature of the charter school network he founded.

Advertising, False Promises, and Mythology Too Frequently Distort the Truth in Charter School Marketplace

Finally, there is New Orleans, the city where in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina, school privatizers swooped in to create what they continue to brag is now a model all-charter school district.  But the charters in New Orleans were superimposed after the disaster of the hurricane on an already selective and unequal school district.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, was the city’s most selective.  And Fortier High School was transformed from a public high school that served its neighborhood into Lusher Charter High School, where students must submit an application.  We hear all about the myth of rising test scores among New Orleans’ charter high schools, but the fact that the top scoring schools are explicitly selective is usually left out of the story.  Until this week’s report from Jarvis DeBerry for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. DeBerry exposes the irony that several of these selective high schools recently won an equity award from the state of Louisiana: “Equity is the practice of making sure that everybody—no matter their identity, no matter their background, no matter their whatever—can fully access or participate in a particular thing… If you’re familiar with the concept, it will surprise you to learn that some New Orleans schools have… still managed to be named ‘Equity Honorees.’  These include schools that have eschewed oneApp in favor of deliberately byzantine admissions processes, schools that don’t provide buses to pick up and take home students without transportation and/or schools that only admit the most academically talented.”

DeBerry continues: “Lusher Charter School is selective admission and on top of that, has a notoriously complex application process. Lake Forest Elementary Charter School’s application process is also hard by design.  Benjamin Franklin High School is highly selective…  Given that these schools are designed to be difficult to access and are only letting in the most academically prepared students and/or those from families that are more well off, how does the state see fit to praise them for modeling equity?”

Equity and Liberty Conflict When It Comes to the Education Market

The Journey4Justice Alliance’s executive director, Jitu Brown understands that an equitable system of public schools—regulated by law to protect students’ rights and the public interest— is likely to be more adequate, stable, and equitable than what a competitive charter school market provides.  In his Forward to a report,  Failing “Brown v Board,” published in May 2018, Brown addresses Bruce Baker’s concern that in education, the charter school marketplace undermines equity even as it expands freedom of choice:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

Dogged Advocates for Justice Protest Ohio State School Takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland

After January, John Kasich will no longer be governor of Ohio. House Bill 70, the law that paved the way for the Youngstown—and now Lorain and East Cleveland—school takeovers is the biggest stain on his legacy.  In gerrymandered Ohio, with huge legislative Republican majorities after the November 2018 election—62 Republicans and 37 Democrats in the Ohio House and 24 Republicans and 9 Democrats in the Ohio Senate—it remains unlikely that HB 70 will be overturned.

House Bill 70 prescribes that any Ohio school district which has received “F” grades for three years running on the state’s school district report card be managed by an appointed Academic Distress Commission instead of the locally elected school board. The state takeover law was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing of the Senate Education Committee in late June of 2015, when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a House bill which had already been moving forward with widespread popular support to expand wraparound full-service Community Learning Centers.  Senate Bill 70 was rushed through committee and passed by the full legislature within 24 hours. The amendment—which had been cooked up by Governor Kasich, then-state superintendent (and now discredited) Richard Ross, and Ross’s assistant, David Hansen, the husband of Governor Kasich’s chief of staff—fully changed the content of what had been House Bill 70 to enable the state to nullify the power of elected local school boards and insert state overseer Academic Distress Commissions, which appoint a CEO to run the district on behalf of the state.

Three years have passed.  Lorain joined Youngstown under state takeover, and now East Cleveland has been added.  In May of this year, northeast Ohio Democrats Kent Smith (whose district includes East Cleveland) and Teresa Fedor (Toledo) introduced HB 626 to overturn Ohio’s state takeover law.  The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains: “The bill would suspend the creation of new academic distress commissions, keeping other failing school districts out of state takeover starting next school year… Despite bipartisan support, Smith said, the bill has yet to get a hearing from this General Assembly.”

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed in late October of 2018 to hear a case against HB 70 resulting from a lawsuit filed originally by the elected Youngstown Board of Education: “The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal regarding House Bill 70 submitted by Youngstown School’s Board of Education and others, which could set a precedent for districts under state mandate.  The original lawsuit, filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in August 2015, challenged that House Bill 70 was unconstitutional  While the 10th District Court of Appeals ruled in June against the school board, the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the appeal….”  Amicus briefs in support of the Youngstown lawsuit were filed with the appellate court from across the Ohio public education community and all of the elected school boards taken over so far: the Lorain Board of Education, the East Cleveland Board of Education, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.

The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March, 2018 that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs including school districts as far away as Boulder, Colorado and Fargo, North Dakota. And a succession of members of Youngstown’s Academic Distress Commission have quit.

Plunderbund adds that Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain. The Elyria Chronicle Telegram reported that Lorain’s CEO has been interviewing and hiring administrators without the required Ohio administrator certification. Hardy has also been courting Teach for America.  In mid-November, the president of Lorain’s elected board of education, Tony Dimacchia formally invited the Ohio Department of Education to investigate problems under the state’s takeover Academic Distress Commission and its appointed CEO.  He charged: “The CEO has created a culture of violence, legal violations, intimidation, and most importantly they have done nothing to improve our schools.”  The Lorain Morning Journal’s Richard Payerchin describes Dimacchia’s concerns: “Dimacchia claimed student and teacher morale is at an all-time low, while violence (at the high school) is at an all-time high.”

Youngstown and Lorain both earned “F” grades once again this year on Ohio’s school district report card.

At a November 28, 2018, Statehouse rally, Senator Joe Schiavoni, Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan, Teresa Fedor, and Kent Smith joined citizens from the three school districts seized by the state—Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  They advocated for hearing and voting on HB 626, introduced in March to stop the takeovers. If no action is taken, the bill will die at the end of the Legislature’s 2017-2018 legislative session.

At last week’s Statehouse rally, Youngstown Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan described all the ways HB 70 abrogates democracy: “The legislation took away the voice of the locally elected school board members and gave an autocratic, unaccountable, appointed CEO total control over every facet of the system. The CEO can hire who he wants. Fire who he wants. Pay people whatever he wants. Hire consultants and pay them as much as he wants. Buy whatever he wants and pay as much as he wants for it. Tear up collective bargaining agreements. Ignore teachers. Ignore students. Ignore parents. And he also has the power to begin closing schools if performance does not improve within five years. Nearly four years in, here’s what the Youngstown Plan has produced: Ethical lapses. No-bid contracts. Huge salaries for the team of administrators the CEO hired. Concern and anxiety among students, parents, and teachers. And the resignation of most of the members of the Distress Commission who were charged with overseeing the CEO. Here’s what it hasn’t produced: better education for our kids.”

As Representative Kent Smith shared at the recent Statehouse rally, East Cleveland is Ohio’s poorest community and the fourth poorest community in the United States. The school districts in Youngstown and Lorain also serve concentrations of poor children.  In its policy for poor school districts, Ohio has chosen to punish instead of investing to support the children and their teachers.

In an important 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, pointedly explains why school rating systems based on aggregate standardized test scores—like the one Ohio uses to determine state takeovers—are unjust: “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.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)