Public School Funding: In Too Many States, It’s All about Subtracting and More Subtracting

Let’s review the importance of school finance. It you think this topic is too arcane to think about, consider who has been teaching us about the importance of school funding for two years now, and you’ll realize it’s not abstract or complicated at all. Really it is just an elementary school story problem: If you have a public school budget made up of local, state, and federal tax revenue, and you take away some money by cutting taxes after a recession, and then you take away some more money for charter schools, and then you take away some more money for vouchers, how much will you have left?

For two years now, striking schoolteachers have forced us all to examine what little funding will remain.  They have shown us in the most concrete way the implications of school policy emphasizing test-and-punish school accountability and increased school privatization—all overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions in their schools created by collapsing revenue—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses. From state to state, teachers have repeated and reinforced the primary causes of this problem in a way that ought to help us remember: States have failed to raise enough revenue to support the public schools and then state legislatures have driven a lot of taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into privatized charter schools and vouchers for students to pay private school tuition.

In the ways they have persistently underfunded public schools and the degree to which they have created policies to drain public funds out of the public schools and into privatized charter schools and vouchers, state legislators have demonstrated their lack of commitment to the principles of adequate school funding and its equitable distribution. Most of the state constitutions enshrine a commitment to adequacy and equity of funding, but only a few states have demonstrated a commitment to these principles in 2020.

First, there is the matter of whether state legislatures have been raising enough money in general to pay for K-12 education. After tax revenues collapsed in the 2008 recession, many states made the problem worse by continuing to cut taxes. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels.

We need to celebrate one state: In late November, Massachusetts enacted a plan to address this problem. For Bloomberg News, Andrea Gabor reports: “School wars are over in Massachusetts. Everybody won… Governor Charlie Baker signed a school-funding bill that is almost as historic as the 1993 law that made the state the gold standard for public education for at least a decade. The rest of the country should pay attention. The law will add $1.5 billion in state financing of K-12 education over seven years, most of it for poor districts and for children with the greatest needs. The 2019 law, which passed both houses of the Democrat-controlled state legislature unanimously and was signed by a Republican governor, doesn’t just increase school aid; it fixes the school-funding formula that saw poor districts like Brockton spending just $14,491 per pupil in 2018, while affluent towns like Weston spent $25,367 per pupil.  It also makes it easier to count undocumented-immigrant children who were often excluded under the old funding formula… Indeed, while the testing requirements remain, the new law signals a backlash against additional carrot-and-stick measures that are seen as coming at the expense of the poorest children and districts.”

The carrot and stick measures Gabor describes are the test-based accountability policies that sanction districts whose scores are low.  And the most damaging of the punishments for low scoring districts are the privatized education schemes which only further undermine adequate and equitable public school funding.  Legislators say they are providing escapes for kids trapped in so-called “failing” schools, but that isn’t really how it works.

The first of these privatization schemes involves uncontrolled expansion of charter schools. Larry Scott is an at-large member of the board of education in Buffalo, New York. In a commentary last week for the Buffalo News, Scott details the drain on the Buffalo public schools’ budget which has resulted from test-and-punish accountability imposed by the legislature in Albany: “It is unconscionable that the Buffalo School Board doesn’t have a meaningful say or veto power over the decision to add new charter schools to this oversaturated market, where more than 20% of Buffalo students attend charter schools.” “The State’s established process for funding charters is problematic. Using the District as a pass-through, the state mandates a formula to determine charter tuition using the District’s approved operating expenses. This method penalizes the District for its more costly services, such as those incurred by special education and English Language Learners….”  “Charter schools should no longer be funded at the expense of Buffalo Public Schools’ students and their needs… With 90% of our Buffalo students exhibiting extraordinary needs, they encounter incredible inequities in programming, opportunities and supports compared to our suburban students. They deserve equitable access to art, music, librarians, advanced placement and accelerated courses, mental health professionals, and specialists in reading and math. Making the above changes and reforming how charters are authorized, funded and governed will allow the Buffalo Board of Education to advance its commitment to improve access, equity, opportunity and quality for all of our students.”

Scott describes a widespread problem.  Across the nation in California, political economist Gordon Lafer explains that state law permits charter schools in Oakland to suck $57.3 million annually out of the Oakland Unified School District: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

In the same way, expansion of vouchers to pay for private school education at public expense threatens the funding of public education. The growing cost to public schools of vouchers is causing alarm in Wisconsin. Earlier this month, Eau Claire’s Up North News reporter, Julian Emerson quotes Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network: “The expansion of voucher schools across Wisconsin is definitely becoming a bigger topic of concern… It impacts all of us.” Emerson explains: “(T)he cost of private voucher schools to taxpayers does not show up as a separate item on property tax bills in most communities because legislators lumped it into the levy for public school districts, making it appear that the public school district alone is responsible for tax dollars, even the money that the public school district never receives…  According to the Department of Public Instruction, 82 percent of students receiving voucher payments this year attended private schools last year.” Bourenane explains: “In much of the state, parents are not choosing to opt from public to private schools… Most of this money is going to kids who can already afford to go to private schools.”

In a column in last week’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, Susie Kaeser exposes the disastrous consequences in Ohio of the vast expansion—secretly added by the state budget conference committee last summer—of the EdChoice voucher program.  EdChoice works much like Wisconsin’s statewide vouchers—deducting private school vouchers from the budgets of local school districts without any public accounting of the amount being deducted and sent to private schools. In one school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, an Ohio public school funding expert, the Ohio Education Policy Institute’s Howard Fleeter did calculate the rate of growth of voucher usage just this year: 478 percent.  This blog recently covered (herehere, here, and here) the crisis caused by the radical expansion of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers.

Kaeser explains what this means for the future fiscal health of Ohio’s public school districts: “The legislature, the guardian of the public school system, has forsaken its responsibility for the common good. Vouchers are funded by the deduction method, which means part of the cost is picked up by local school districts. Until voucher costs show up on the expense column of a school district’s budget, it may be hard to see that they threaten education quality and the viability of a community.  But that is what is at stake. Voucher access is now on a scale that, if not reined in, will permanently damage public education as a resource for the children of our state. Ohio’s school funding system is broken. It is underfunded, allows for vast differences in opportunity from district to district, and relies much too heavily on local property taxes. Vouchers exacerbate every weakness of the current system. Diverting public funds from more public school students to pay for private school education will make it nearly impossible to create an affordable funding policy for Ohio’s public schools. It will cost too much to fill the growing holes in local budgets… Districts everywhere operate on tight budgets.  Every dollar counts. Now that EdChoice will undermine public school budgets statewide, will the legislature stand up for public schools?”

Although the financial mechanisms may operate somewhat differently from state to state, here is how simple arithmetic explains what is happening in New York, California, Wisconsin, and Ohio: If you don’t add enough money into the education system, and you subtract lots of the money you do put in and divert it to private charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition, you will surely  undermine the public schools. You will also very likely exacerbate inequity, because the poorest school districts, whose aggregate test scores are likely to be lower, are punished the most by privatization which is central to sanctions-based accountability schemes.

Massachusetts just defined itself as a model, if only everyone would pay attention.

School Prayer Isn’t in Question, but Wednesday, Supreme Court Will Hear Important Church-State Separation Case

President Donald Trump made a splash last week pretending that students’ right to pray at school has been threatened.  While this subject may appeal to his base, the law is settled on this matter.

Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains: “Courts have held that students may pray at school alone or in groups, but that prayer may not be organized or sanctioned by the school… The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in its current and past versions, requires the U.S. Department of Education to provide guidance on prayer in schools every two years, but that guidance hasn’t been updated since 2003… The new school prayer guidance, published in the Federal Register Thursday morning, reiterates requirements under existing law that school districts must annually certify to their state departments of education that they have ‘no policy prohibiting participation in constitutionally protected prayer’….”

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Ariana Eunjung Chah quote Charles Haynes, an expert on this issue at the First Amendment Center’s Freedom Forum: “It’s overdrawn and somewhat political to keep this so-called school prayer fight going… This is in some ways a manufactured crisis because it plays well politically to say, ‘We want God back in schools.'”

Although prayer in school is not really at issue this week, another controversy involving religion and public education will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.  The justices will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in an important case involving the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of church and state. The subject is the long fight over the First Amendment’s prohibition of “establishing” religion, in this case by using public tax dollars to pay for religious schools.  The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, tests the 1972 Montana state constitution’s provision that public funds must be spent on the public schools across the state. Montana renewed its commitment to the principle of separation of church and state when 100 delegates met in 1972 to revise and renew the state’s constitution.

Diane Ravitch summarizes the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual decision in the Montana Espinoza case: “The facts of the case are these: Like many states, Montana’s state constitution forbids the funding of religious schools. The Montana legislature passed a tax credit program that funds vouchers for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the state constitution.  Now, the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court… The typical attack on state bans on funding religious schools is that such prohibitions are ‘Blaine amendments,’ adopted in the late 19th century at the height of anti-Catholic bigotry; because they were passed in a spirit of bigotry, the argument goes, they should be struck down. In Montana, the prohibition on funding religious schools is not a Blaine amendment.  It was the product of a Montana state constitutional convention in 1972.”

In an amicus brief, Public Funds for Public Schools— a collaboration of the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Munger, Tolles & Olson—supports Montana’s protection of the use of public funds exclusively for public schools.  Public Funds for Public Schools’ amicus brief describes the debate in 1972 as the delegates revised Montana’s state constitution: “(P)roponents of the majority reiterated their support of public schools and explicitly rejected any notion that bigotry motivated the majority’s proposal to retain the 1889 language,” which affirmed the exclusive expenditure of state education dollars on public schools. A 1972 compromise did permit the pass-through of federal funds to nonpublic schools, but explicitly prohibited the use of state funds for nonpublic educational purposes.

The Public Funds for Public Schools amicus brief explains further the delegates’ commitment to fully funding equity in Article X, the broader education clause of the Montana Constitution as revised in 1972, “Article X, Section 1 obligates the state legislature to provide a system of ‘free quality public elementary and secondary schools,’ guarantees ‘equality of educational opportunity,’ and sets the objective of ‘developing the full educational potential of each person.’ …  The delegates resolved that Montana’s public education system ‘must be directed to the elimination of blatant injustices, which may predetermine a lifelong disadvantage.’  Section 1 also reflects the delegates’ awareness of and concern regarding the legacy of American Indian education and the historical treatment of the native nations within Montana’s borders… In guaranteeing Indian Education for All, Montana’s delegates entrusted their public school system to right the historical wrongs of western education in American Indian communities, and reaffirmed the State’s goal of providing a free quality public education to all Montana’s students—with the accompanying commitment to adequately fund these constitutional mandates.”

The challenge to Montana’s constitutional protection of the separation of church and state is being litigated by the Institute for Justice, the conservative law firm behind a number of similar court challenges in recent decades. In a recent report published by In These Times, Alice Herman explains the significance of the Espinoza case which threatens Montana’s guarantee that public funds will be spent on public schools: “On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that could result in the massive expansion of public funding for private religious schools. The petitioners in the case—which will be litigated by the conservative law group, Institute for Justice—are asking that the court rule unconstitutional the denial of ‘public funds’ to religious schools…. In the event that the court rules in favor of the petitioner, the result, argue its detractors, would be tantamount to a mandate for religious voucher programs in every state… The origins of the Espinoza case lie in a December 2018 Montana court ruling that a state tax credit program incentivizing charitable donations to private school scholarship funds could not be applied to scholarships for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court held that the state-implemented tax credit could only be applied to non-religions private schools… In the event that the Supreme Court rules in the plaintiff’s favor, public funding for private education will increase not only in Montana, but in the 37 states whose constitutions ban the provision of public funds for religious schools.”

Last October, The New Yorker magazine’s Supreme Court reporter, Jeffrey Toobin detailed his concerns about the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the protection of church state separation.  Specifically Toobin described the philosophy of Attorney General William Barr: “(S)peaking at the University of Notre Dame… Bar took ‘religious liberty’ as his subject, and he portrayed his fellow-believers as a beleaguered and oppressed minority.” Toobin continues: “(I)n recent years, a key tenet of the evangelical movement (and its supporters, like Barr) has been an effort to get access to taxpayer dollars.  In a major case before the Supreme Court this year, the Trump Administration is supporting religious parents who want to use a Montana state-tax-credit program to pay for their children’s religious schools. This effort is also a major priority of Betsy DeVos the Secretary of Education, who is pushing for the increased availability of taxpayer vouchers to pay for religious schools.  Barr portrays these efforts as the free exercise of religion when, in fact, they are the establishment of religion; partisanship in the war between the religion clauses (of the First Amendment) is one of the signatures of Trump’s tenure in office. Of course, the necessary corollary to providing government subsidies to religious schools is starving the public schools, which are open to all children, of funds.”

Ohio’s Budget Bill Multiplies School Vouchers, Leaves Local School Districts in Crisis

On Tuesday afternoon, I went to a meeting of my monthly book discussion group—all of us retired and over 70.  But as we sat down with our coffee and before we discussed the book we had all been reading for the month, we found ourselves distracted by the topic that is tearing our community apart: the changes the Ohio Legislature made last summer in the fine print of the FY 20-21 state budget—changes that exploded the size of the state’s EdChoice school voucher program.

I wonder whether legislators have any real understanding of the collateral damage for particular communities from policies enacted without debate. Maybe, because our community has worked for fifty years to be a stable, racially and economically diverse community with emphasis on fair housing enforcement and integrated schools, legislators just write us off as another failed urban school district. After all, Ohio’s education policy emphasizes state takeover and privatization instead of equitable school funding. The state punishes instead of helping all but its most affluent, outer ring, exurban, “A”-rated school districts, where property values are high enough that state funding is not a worry.

What this year’s EdChoice voucher expansion means for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where the members of my book discussion group all live is that—just to pay for the new vouchers—our school district has been forced to put a property tax levy on the March 17 primary election ballot. Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains that in our school district, EdChoice voucher use has grown by 478 percent in a single year.  Fleeter continues: “Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.’” “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

Ohio deducts the price of the vouchers students carry to private and religious schools from the local school district budget even though, in the case of Cleveland Heights-University Heights this year, 94 percent of those students have never attended the public schools in our district. The state counts the voucher students who live in our community as though they are enrolled in our school district and then deducts the voucher from the local school budget, but the cost of each voucher is more than the state allocates per pupil.  In fact, in the current Ohio biennial FY20-21 state budget, state public education basic aid funding is frozen, which means our district actually gets no new state funding for each voucher student, but one hundred percent the cost of each voucher is deducted anyway.

Why are the people in my book group so upset about the voucher explosion and another levy on the ballot in March?  We are not a bunch of old ladies grousing about the burden of our taxes.  Two of us co-chaired a successful school levy campaign back in 1993; one person served on the board of education; and the rest were teachers in our school district. As we read the conversation threads on Next Door, where people are accusing our district of mismanaging funds, or paying teachers too much, or hiring too many school psychologists, we worry about all the undocumented misinformation floating around. Members of our group are anxious about our grandchildren and our neighbors’ children who depend on the public schools we have spent our lives supporting and protecting.  But it is difficult to explain what happened in the budget, our plight this winter set in motion last June and July in the budget conference committee, when amendments were added to the state budget without debate. It was done so quietly at the time that people across the state only began to grasp the impact later in August when the Ohio Association of School Business Officials alerted school treasurers about the potential impact.

Fortunately the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District sponsored a special public meeting on January 9, 2020, to explain the changes in the EdChoice Voucher Program and begin quelling the anxiety that is tearing our community apart. The school district has posted the powerpoint presentation from the meeting, and at the meeting,  the school district distributed a clear, factual brochure about the legislature’s changes in the EdChoice Vouchers.  The brochure explains: “(T)he program was expanded to the point of unsustainability. Ohio had fewer than 300 buildings deemed eligible for vouchers in 2018-2019; that number has exploded to 1,200 for 2020-2021. When the Ohio General Assembly passed its biennial budget in July 2019, it froze receipts at 2018-2019 levels. This means that for every new voucher used, none of the cost would be offset by state aid. Legislators also removed the provision that required students to attend a public school prior to using the voucher. Unable to prepare financially for the change, the District was forced the following month to negotiate one-year contracts with the teachers union, as opposed to multi-year contracts. In CH-UH, approximately 1,400 students, 94% of whom have never attended our K-12 public schools, are taking scholarships to attend private schools. This has amounted to an actual loss of $4.2 million for us last fiscal year and an estimated loss of $6.8 million this fiscal year.” Each time a student secures an EdChoice Voucher, that student can keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction, every year until the student graduates from high school.

The school district’s information handout continues: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

School districts across Ohio are demanding that the Legislature do something about what has become a crisis for many school districts. It is important that the Legislature act quickly, before the February EdChoice Voucher enrollment period for next school year. The Heights Coalition for Public Education, a community organization, has prepared a list of short-term voucher fixes which the Legislature should consider:

  1. “Remove budget language from House Bill 166 (the current state budget) expanding vouchers in grades 7-8 and for high schools.  Restore voucher language to pre-budget language.”
  2. Limit state report card ratings on which EdChoice schools are designated to 2017-18 and 2018-19.  Currently districts are held accountable all the way back to 2013-14, and considerable changes in school programming have occurred in the seven ensuing years.
  3. “Restore funding for school districts that have lost funds to voucher students who were not part of their 2019 Average Daily Enrollment.”
  4. “Cut the loss of funds for high poverty (50% economically disadvantage) districts at 5% and other school districts at 10%.”
  5. Adopt the funding methodology for EdChoice Expansion (another Ohio voucher program) which awards vouchers to needy students and pays for the vouchers fully with state funds (not the school district deduction).

State Senator Matt Huffman has long been among the Ohio Legislature’s strongest proponents of school vouchers.  Earlier this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that Senator Huffman himself supports the fifth voucher fix listed above: “State Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, wants a bigger change. He is resurrecting his 2017 proposal to offer vouchers to any family in Ohio whose income falls under certain limits… His proposal would have the state, not districts, pay for the vouchers of $4,650 for grades K-8 and the $6,000 a year for high school. That would eliminate many district complaints that voucher costs are killing their budgets.  He said the state can control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Some extra money is already available in the budget, he said. ‘That seems to be the only way, really, to do this in a fair way,’ he added.”

There is reason for caution here, even though Huffman’s assessment is correct that eliminating the school district deduction method for funding vouchers is the only fair way to address what has become an urgent crisis for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools and for many other Ohio school districts. We all remember Naomi Klein’s 2007 warning about the danger of adopting “shock doctrine,” privatization policies in a hurry in the midst of a crisis. We need to be sure that any so-called fix isn’t just an opportunity for the Legislature to grow the state’s voucher programs in some other way.  After all, in the case of Ohio’s current voucher mess, the Ohio Legislature itself created the crisis by expanding school privatization with explosive growth in the EdChoice school district deduction.

This blog has emphatically and consistently opposed private school tuition vouchers paid for with public funds, because vouchers undermine public funding for public education. Education privatization is never in the public interest.

However, currently in Ohio, an existential crisis for local school districts demands an immediate solution. The Legislature has saddled school districts with a school privatization program whose size the Legislature has no incentive to control because the money quietly washes out of local school district budgets. Neither can school districts control what is happening to their local budgets when the Legislature has set up an uncontrollable flow of dollars into the vouchers.

Huffman’s proposed solution would not solve the bigger problem of Ohio school vouchers. On the other hand, Huffman’s plan would pay for the vouchers out of the state budget, and as he points out, if it were to be so inclined, the Legislature could control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Huffman’s idea would address the immediate school district financial crisis. It would then be up to all of us to pressure the Legislature to control the size and number of Ohio school vouchers awarded each year. Perhaps we can motivate a future legislature to eliminate vouchers entirely and return to a system where public dollars serve the mass of our children in the public schools.

If you are looking for the facts about Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers, here are some resources:

You can watch the video of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District’s recent meeting (January 9, 2020) to explain the alarming, rising cost of EdChoice Vouchers for the school district due to changes in the FY 20-21 state budget passed last summer.

The Heights Coalition for Public Education has  created materials to explain the impact of EdChoice on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district. You can access them in a number of formats:  Slideshow (PDF); Slideshow (Powerpoint); Narration only for slideshow (PDF); Slides and narration (PDF); Video of slideshow with commentary (Youtube); and Handout for slideshow (PDF).

Charter Schools: All the Ways They Are Not In the Public Interest

Donald Cohen is the executive director of In the Public Interest. In a powerful statement about his organization’s mission for 2020, Cohen proclaims:

“So much is under attack: public education, water, transit, public parks, public health, libraries, the postal service, air traffic control, and much more.  Where there’s money to be made, there are corporations positioning to take over… What worries us most is when private interests get too much control and influence over fundamental democratic decisions and our ability to provide public goods… We often hear that government is needed when markets fail. We disagree. There are market things and public things. They’re different things, like apples and oranges.  Here’s what we mean by ‘public’ (or, what’s in the public interest):

  • The things we can only do if we do them together…
  • The things we all benefit from regardless of whether we use the specific service or asset…
  • The things that protect and support us all…
  • The things that make us a better, fairer, more compassionate, and more democratic nation.

“We are pro-government because it is the only institution capable of ensuring that public things remain public.”

During the past quarter century, charter schools have come to threaten the public interest as Cohen defines it.  While their sponsors call them “public charter schools,” they are public only in the funding stream of public tax dollars. Their boards are private, and the management companies that operate many of them are frequently for-profits.

In an article she published last fall in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Duke University public policy expert, Helen Ladd explains how charter schools threaten the public interest: “A fundamental problem with charter schools is that in most cases they undermine the coherence and effectiveness of state and local school systems. If charter schools were limited in number to the fringe of the traditional system, as was originally envisioned by some early supporters such as Ray Budde and Albert Shanker, or if elected policymakers take special precautions to ensure that charters and traditional schools work toward common goals, the adverse systemic effects might be contained. But, in areas with relatively large or growing charter school sectors overseen by weak authorizers, the negative systemic effects undermine the public interest.”

While the overall academic quality of charter schools cannot be assessed because each one or each chain of charter schools is unique, two very significant overall problems with charter schools threaten the public interest.  The first overall problem is that charter schools drain tax dollars out of the public schools. Because legislators never add new taxes when they budget money for charter schools, the state education budget is depleted.

Charter schools also drain funds from the school districts where their students live, and over time, this financial loss is unsustainable for the public schools. In a report published in 2018 by In the Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrates that charter schools drain $57.3 million annually from California’s Oakland Unified School District. Why does this happen? “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.”

The second problem is that charter schools are difficult to regulate. The charter sector is well funded, and the coffers of its advocates are fed by the tax dollars collected by the for-profit operators. The money for lobbying and political contributions to the legislators who would have to pass regulations saturates the system with corruption.

It is encouraging that three times since Christmas states or local school districts have taken steps in the public interest to rein in their out-of-control charter school sectors.

In Newark, New Jersey, the Superintendent of Newark Public Schools worries about what he says is 30 percent of the school district’s revenue redirected to charter schools. For Chalkbeat, Patrick Wall explains: “The head of the Newark school system is calling for the closure of four local charter schools and a ban on most new charter schools…. First, he cited the financial impact of charter schools on the district.  Because school aid follows students in New Jersey, districts must hand over most of the funding attached to each student who enrolls in a charter school.  Wall describes the superintendent’s concerns: “Finally, he questioned whether the schools adequately serve a significant number of students with special needs. He pointed to data in the schools’ renewal applications showing that they serve a smaller share of students with disabilities or those still learning English than the district and argued that the schools’ own descriptions of their programs suggest students are not being properly served.”

The state of New Hampshire just turned down a federal Charter Schools Program grant of $46 million.  The Concord Monitor reports: “The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted 7-3… to reject the funds… Democrats have maintained they rejected the money due to a sense of fiscal responsibility.” The newspaper quotes an op ed column by Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, Senator David Watters, and Reps. Mel Myler, Dave Luneau, and Mary Heath: “There are simply too many unanswered questions about the current landscape of charter schools in New Hampshire, and our state’s capacity to support doubling the number of those schools… It would be fiscally irresponsible for the fiscal committee to move forward with this grant, which would double charter schools outside the legislative process, jeopardize the financial health of New Hampshire’s current traditional and charter public schools, and make an end-run around the state budget that commits the state of New Hampshire to millions of dollars in unbudgeted education aid into the future.”

The final story is from Ohio—a story of sort-of protecting the public interest. In Ohio there are all sorts of authorizers of charter schools, and there have been decades of insufficient oversight of charter schools. Ohio is also where one of today’s players is Ron Packard, who started K-12 Inc.—the notorious national online for-profit school—and whose new for-profit education venture is Accel, which has been taking over the management of schools once run by White Hat Management and the infamous David Brennan.

Keep in mind that Ron Packard and Accel manage all the schools described last week by the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell: “East Academy, Cleveland Preparatory Academy and West Park Academy charter schools each scored an F on their latest state report cards. But school leaders are claiming they are ‘quality’ schools, so they can receive new bonus tax money of up to $1,750 per enrolled student from the state. Officials of the F-rated OhDela online charter school of nearly 2,000 students are making the same claim. And Chapelside Cleveland Academy is seeking the ‘quality’ bonus, even though its authorizer—the non-profit that oversees the school on behalf of the state—has given up on trying to fix the school’s F grade and is yanking its support. The fast growing for-profit Accel charter school chain, which runs all of these schools, has applied for more than $15 million in cash from a new $30 million fund that Gov. Mike DeWine and the state legislature created this summer as a boost for Ohio’s best charter schools.”

Thanks to charter school promoters in Ohio, $30 million to reward charter schools was buried in the fine print of the state budget. The fund is supposedly to support quality charter schools, but a school can also qualify if its management company has received a federal Charter Schools Program grant for a school it operates in another state: “Under a provision in the bill, these F-rated Accel schools may qualify for the bonus because a Colorado Springs charter school run by Accel won a federal grant a few years ago.”

O’Donnell reports this week, however, that the Ohio Department of Education blocked Ron Packard’s  swindle: “The Ohio Department of Education has blocked a ‘loophole’ that would have given millions of tax dollars to charter schools with bad grades…. (T)he department today rejected Accel’s application for those schools, citing details of Accel’s corporate registrations in Ohio that fail to connect Ohio operations with those of Accel in Colorado. Because Accel is not registered as a business that also operates in other states, the department ruled it is not eligible for the money… Accel founder Ron Packard said the ruling is unfair and while schools in different states may have different corporate registration, they are all Accel subsidiaries.”

It is definitely not in the public interest that $30 million was secreted in Ohio’s state budget last summer for charter schools when, in the same budget, basic-aid foundation funding for public schools is frozen over the FY 20-21 biennium.  However, it is very much in the public interest that the Ohio Department of Education has just prohibited a windfall award of $1,750 per-pupil to Ron Packer’s academically inferior, for-profit, Accel charter schools.

Educational Redlining: GreatSchools Ratings Drive Housing Segregation

Back in 2015, Heights Community Congress (HCC) in Cleveland Heights, Ohio raised serious concerns (here and here) about the impact of online GreatSchools ratings of public schools. The GreatSchools ratings were, in 2015, being used in online real estate advertising by listing services like Zillow.  The practice continues.

HCC, founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization. For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers. During 2015 and 2016, the fair housing committee of HCC held community meetings to demonstrate that such ads and ratings of public schools are steering home buyers to whiter and wealthier communities and redlining racially and economically diverse and majority black and Hispanic communities.

Last month, Chalkbeat published an in-depth examination of similar concerns on a national scale: “Arguably the most visible and influential school rating system in America comes from the nonprofit GreatSchools, whose 1-10 ratings appear in home listings on national real estate websites Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin.  Forty-three million people visited GreatSchools’ site in 2018…. Zillow and its affiliated sites count more than 150 million unique visitors per month.”

Chalkbeat reports that GreatSchools has calculated its ratings for schools using the annual standardized test scores mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a requirement maintained in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB in 2015.  Because the ratings were criticized for relying too much on one standardized test score, in 2017, GreatSchools revised its algorithm for rating schools by including a factor to reflect the rate of growth in each school’s student test scores over time.

But Chalkbeat reports that the overall bias still condemns schools in the poorest communities: “When the organization overhauled its ratings in 2017, it included a host of new metrics. A GreatSchools representative said at the time that the new ratings would ‘more accurately reflect what’s going on in a school besides just its demographics.’  It was a striking acknowledgement of the flaws in the prior system… Two years into this new system, Chalkbeat took a closer look.  We examined the ratings of elementary and middle schools in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, New York City, Phoenix, and San Francisco, combined with several of each city’s suburbs.  The results are striking. On average, the more black and Hispanic students a school enrolled, and the more low-income students it served, the lower its rating. The average 1-10 GreatSchools rating for schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students is 4 to 6 points lower than the average score for schools with the fewest black and Hispanic students and fewest low-income students. In most places, only a tiny fraction of schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students score a 7 or better, the number that earns an ‘above average’ label from GreatSchools.”

In December, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) reported on a Newsday report from Long Island: “The newspaper found that realtors repeatedly steered White buyers away from school districts enrolling higher percentages of minority residents, typically using veiled language. For example, they told white buyers that one community was an area to avoid ‘school district-wise’ or ‘based on statistics.'” And the housing values increased more rapidly in school districts with high GreatSchools ratings.

NEPC explains that Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University followed up on the NewsDay report.  Wells and her colleagues discovered that a one percent increase in Black/Hispanic enrollment corresponded with a 0.3 percent decrease in home values. In other words, a home worth $415,000 at the time of the study in 2010 would cost $50,000 more in a 30 percent Hispanic/Black district as compared to a 70 percent Hispanic/Black district.”  Wells and her colleagues examined and compared the schools themselves: “There didn’t seem to be a huge difference at all in the curriculum and the quality of the teachers… So they (real estate agents) do play an important role in steering people away from certain districts that are becoming more racially, ethnically diverse and less White, in particular.”

For over half a century, research has confirmed that standardized test scores are a poor measure of the quality of a public school. Instead aggregate standardized test scores are highly correlated with family and neighborhood income. Children educated in pockets of privilege regularly post high scores, while children in schools where poverty is concentrated post the lowest scores. Here are three examples of this research, two by academic experts and the third a recent correlation study by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

For a decade now, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon has been studying the correlation of achievement gaps measured by standardized tests with economic and racial segregation. He has documented that standardized tests measure all of the inside- and outside-of-school factors in a child’s life. Children who live in pockets of wealth bring their privilege with them when they take standardized tests.  In a massive new study published last fall, Is Separate Still Unequal, Reardon explains: “The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty.” “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

Harvard University’s testing expert, Daniel Koretz, emphasizes that while children living in concentrated poverty take longer to catch up to their more privileged peers, our testing regime fails to consider the needs of children who start school farther behind: “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…. 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: Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

And finally, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner created a series of bar graphs when the Ohio state school district report cards were released last September. Exner demonstrates the correlation of the letter grades awarded to school districts by the state’s school rating system (letter grades based primarily on aggregate student’ standardized test scores) with the family income of the children in each school district.  School districts earning “A” ratings boasted median family income of $95,432, while the school districts rated “F” serve families whose median family income is $32,658.  The state of Ohio itself in its annual school report cards seems to be joining GreatSchools and Zillow to steer families to the affluent, white, exurbs surrounding our cities. These are the districts which regularly earn “A” grades on the state report card and the highest ratings from GreatSchools and Zillow.

It is alarming to see our society stepping back so completely from concerns about steering, disparate treatment, and redlining in the real estate market. These are the very issues the 1968 Fair Housing Act was intended to address.  The National Education Policy Center declares: “Realtors and real estate websites alike share assessments that downgrade schools that serve higher percentages of low-income and minority students, while also serving to maintain segregated housing patterns by steering Whites away from districts that serve students of color.”

Dem. Candidates Call for Equitable Public School Investment. Can the New Narrative Be Sustained?

Is our society beginning to realize that we must invest in helping instead of punishing the school districts which serve our poorest children?

Clearly the conversation about public education among the Democratic candidates for President has turned away from what has been a quarter century of bipartisan test-and-punish, pro-privatization education policy.  No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law 18 years ago, formalized the strategy.  But in a remarkable commentary on Wednesday in USA Today, Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders declared a very different agenda: “Under NCLB, standardized tests were utilized to hold public schools and teachers ‘accountable’ for student outcomes. As a result, some schools that underperformed were closed and their teachers and unions blamed.  The long-term effects of this approach have been disastrous.  NCLB perpetuated the myth of public schools and teachers as failing, which opened the door for the spread of school voucher programs and charter schools that we have today.  Some of these charter schools are operated by for-profits, many of them are nonunion and are not publicly accountable… The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing, however, is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.”

And all the leading Democratic candidates have also taken notice. In Pittsburgh on December 14, at a Public Education Forum 2020, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President all endorsed tripling or quadrupling the federal investment in Title I.  They spoke for helping instead of punishing the schools in our nation’s poorest communities.

The Devastation Wrought by Accountability-Based, Test-and-Punish, Pro-Privatization School Reform

Federal and state governments have imposed school closures, state takeovers, and the transformation of low-scoring public schools into charter schools, but I don’t know of any school district serving mostly poor children with enough money to do the things wealthy school districts are able to accomplish by investing local property tax dollars they can collect on high-end real estate.  Money enables wealthy school districts to develop high school symphony orchestras; make English classes small enough that teachers can assign in-depth writing about students’ research or reading or experience; rehire professional librarians and turn elementary schools into places where excitement about reading dominates the school culture; and accelerate and enrich math classes so that every child is on a path to take advanced math in high school.

A primary problem has been a chronic shortage of state and federal investment in public education.  After tax revenues collapsed in the 2008 recession, many states made the problem worse by continuing to cut taxes. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also documented that federal Title I formula funding, which supports school districts where student poverty is concentrated, dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

In a short, profound analysis last fall, the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker summarized what teachers and administrators had reported to Education Week are their greatest challenges: “A new Education Week national survey of school districts reveals disturbing gaps between state and federal policy and the reality in American public schools… The most serious funding problem districts report is convincing elected officials to sufficiently fund public schools.  They give both state and federal officials poor marks for their ability to understand school spending, and cite state legislators as the biggest obstacle to making spending decisions that best address student needs.”

Lecker continues: “Recent research highlights the failure of federal and state leaders to grasp the reality facing public schools. The most pernicious failure is the refusal to recognize the connection between poverty, funding and educational opportunity… Rather than recognize that high-poverty schools need more tools, and thus more funding, to best serve their students, federal and state leaders mandate intervention strategies that are proven failures: school turnaround, school closures, and state takeovers of school districts… Federal and state policies repeat a toxic cycle of disinvestment, punishment, then further disinvestment.”

Are Public Attitudes Shifting?

For two years now, striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions in their schools created by collapsing revenue—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.

On December 14 when candidates were asked about their education policies—after months when moderators in televised candidates’ debates failed to ask even a single question about public education—the candidates went on record to declare that underinvestment in our public schools has become the education imperative of our times. We owe enormous thanks to the sponsors of the December 14,  Public Education Forum 2020, which brought leading Democratic candidates face to face with teachers, parents, public school students, and community advocates who pressed candidates publicly to commit to increasing federal funding to ensure opportunity for our nation’s poorest children in their public schools. The event was a collaboration of the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education—Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino.

Professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington, David Knight explains the significance of the Democratic candidates’ new consensus on significantly expanding Title I: “Funding increases of this scale would transform the federal role in education policy, making it easier for school districts to pay teachers higher wages while reducing class sizes. This focus on funding would mark a departure from previous administrations which instead emphasized policies intended to increase accountability and strengthen teacher evaluation.”

Derek Black, the school funding expert at the University of South Carolina School of Law, attended the December Democratic candidates’ forum in Pittsburgh. Black concurs with Knight on the importance of the shift among leading Democrats away from accountability and toward equalizing the opportunity to learn: “With few exceptions, the various Democratic plans for public education share a common theme: more funding, less privatizing… The way taxpayers do or do not fund public schools goes to the core question of the role of government in democracy.  Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of the state and local tax dollars. No other single program comes close. Many of the earliest statewide tax systems came into existence for the express purpose of funding schools. And later major expansions of state taxes, like the state income tax in New Jersey, were solutions to unequal funding across school districts. Education holds this special status because state constitutions specifically require legislatures to fund uniform and adequate systems of public schools…. Public education has suffered steep funding declines over the past decade. Even once the Recession passed and tax revenues fully rebounded, states failed to replace those funds… The longstanding research consensus shows that fairly funding public schools is key to boosting student achievement for low-income students—and the precise connection between funding and student outcomes rows stronger and more detailed with each passing year… (T)hese new Democratic proposals try to do something that the nation has never before attempted, much less achieved: fully funding the educational needs of every poor, disabled, and English language learner student in the nation.”

Two Additional Encouraging Developments

The first involves efforts by state governments to address the school funding challenge. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill to increase school funding across the state by $1.5 billion annually. And Maryland is set to consider a new plan developed over three years by a 25-member Kirwan Commission. The commission’s chair, William Kirwan declares: “Kids growing up in poverty need more resources, and so a major portion of our recommendations are aimed at putting the resources into the schools where there are lots of low-income kids and providing them support.”

A second development is at least mildly encouraging. In the federal budget President Trump signed just before Christmas, Congress did not cut funding for public education as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had proposed. The new federal budget does not, of course, move toward the transformational changes being suggested by the leading Democrats running for President, but it does at least protect Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from deep cuts.  And Congress neglected once again to enact DeVos’s annual proposal for federal tuition tax credit vouchers.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “The fiscal 2020 spending bill Trump just signed provides $72.8 billion in discretionary funding to the Education Department, a $1.3 billion increase that stands in stark contrast to the 10 percent cut Trump proposed in his blueprint from March. The spending bill he signed includes a $450 million increase for Title I spending on disadvantaged students, a $410 million increase for state special education grants, and more money for programs covering enrichment and educator training.” Increasing Title I by $450 million and funding for mandated IDEA programming by $410 million—once these dollars are spread across 50 states—is a tiny and relatively meaningless investment. But it is a statement of continuing Congressional rejection of Trump’s policies.

A change is emerging, but if we want to transform every public elementary school, middle school and high school into a model school, and, on top of enriching the academics, to transform the schools serving the poorest families into full-service wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, there is still a long way to go.  It is time to keep on keeping on.

Slaying Goliath: Diane Ravitch’s New Book Traces a Quarter Century of Public Education Disruption

In her new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch summarizes, defines, and humanizes the widespread attack that has threatened public education across the United States in the past quarter century. And she tracks an encouraging backlash, a growing resistance led by dogged individuals, community organizations, and organized schoolteachers.

What’s been called corporate-accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform is something we’ve all watched over the years—nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—statewide as school budgets have been stretched to pay for privatized charters or vouchers—and locally as our children began taking too many standardized tests, our local schools began receiving letter grades on state report cards, or students left the local public school for a nearby charter school.

With only scanty newspaper coverage to guide us, however, we may have struggled grasp the ideology behind this war on public education or see how all the lines of attack were converging to discredit public schools and the work of local teachers.  Diane Ravitch, the education historian, has done us all an enormous favor with this new book.

Ravitch defines the ideology of the war being waged on public education by a giant army. Ravitch names the so-called “school reform” movement a Goliath-sized experiment in disruption.  Goliath’s work can be seen in “the wreckage that the so-called ‘reform’ movement had created by demonizing teachers as if they were adversaries of their students and treating them as malingerers who required constant evaluation lest they fail to do their duty…. (in) the damage inflicted on public schools, their students and teachers, by heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools…. (in) the work of some of the richest people in this nation: the Walton family, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, and a bevy of other billionaires, most of whom had made their fortunes on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the tech industry.” These people and their organizations “often say their goal is to ‘disrupt’ public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves. They are Disrupters…. (T)he current disruption movement… is in fact a calculated, insidious, and munificently funded campaign to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism… Disrupters are proponents of privatization… Disrupters view education as an entrepreneurial activity that should be ‘scalable’ and should produce ‘return on investment.'”

The Disrupters have brought us a dangerous narrative about “failing” public schools even though most of us appreciate our local public schools and the professional teachers who nurture our children. And the Disrupters have redefined the purpose of education: “In the new era of disruption, it seems quaint, antique actually, to speak of ‘love of learning’ as a goal of education, to speak of education as personal development and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society.  Where is the profit in such fuzzy goals? How could… (the profit) be measured?”

Who is Goliath and who is funding the war on public education? The funders are the giant philanthropies like Gates, Broad, Walton, and a host of others including Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, and the Bezos family. The movement is also funded by corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and hedge fund managers.  It is being promoted by advocacy groups like ALEC; the member state foundations of the State Policy Network—groups like the Goldwater Institute in Arizona and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan; national advocacy groups like Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and EdChoice—formerly the Friedman Foundation. There are lavishly funded think tanks paid to produce the so-called “research” on which the movement is based. And finally the movement has permeated states and local school boards through the work of ideologically aligned politicians. Ravitch names names in every category, but perhaps the most arresting is the list of Disrupter-aligned Republican state governors: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis; Michigan’s Rick Snyder; Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence; Ohio’s John Kasich; Arizona’s Doug Ducey; Illinois’s Bruce Rauner; Georgia’s Nathan Deal; Kentucky’s Matt Bevin; and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and Bill Lee.

Who makes up the Resistance? Ravitch calls our attention to the imbalance in this battle, beginning with the level of philanthropic support: “The number of foundations which support the Resistance is in the single digits, led by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. This is truly a David vs. Goliath matchup.”  Scholars and academic researchers have supported the Resistance with information: Harvard’s Daniel Koretz and his book The Testing Charade, David Berliner and Gene Glass and their book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten American Public Schools, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski and their book The Public School Advantage, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, Duke’s Helen Ladd, Rutgers’ Bruce Baker, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, U. of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing and her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, political economist Gordon Lafer and his In the Public Interest study of the cost of charters for the Oakland Unified School District, and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—to name just a few of Ravitch’s examples.  School teachers have organized Save Our Schools rallies and working together, the Badass Teachers Association and parents produced United Opt Out.  The Network for Public Education has pulled together education columnists, bloggers and community groups.  The Journey for Justice Alliance, led by Chicago’s Jitu Brown—one of the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strikers who fought to save the public Dyett High School from closure—has organized an army of parents, high school students, and local community activists from city to city.

Where were the major battlefields in the war on public education? Ravitch devotes short, readable chapters to some of the biggest fights. One chapter explores the damage wrought by high-stakes standardized testing; another presents the research on how a strategy based on incentives for raising scores and punishments for low-scoring school districts, schools, and teachers has undermined the morale of teachers and ruined kids’ enjoyment of school.  A chapter on school choice, deregulation and corruption begins: “Any organization that receives millions of dollars in public funds should be subject to public oversight and accountability.  Lobbyists for the charter industry have fought against accountability and oversight, claiming that any regulation would hinder innovation.”  We learn about disruptive reforms which faultered when they didn’t work out as promised: the Gates-funded Common Core Standards; Value Added Measure (VAM) evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores; and the Parent Trigger school takeover initiative. One chapter describes the philanthropy-funded takeover of the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina, and the profusion of vouchers and charter schools foisted on Florida by Jeb Bush, his foundation, ExcelinEd.

Despite all the money and ideology invested to disrupt the public schools, Ravitch demonstrates that the Resistance is ultimately winning this battle. Test-and-punish didn’t work. No Child Left Behind declared that all children would be proficient before 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. But test scores didn’t budge. The NAACP released a major resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are regulated in the public interest. The ACLU released studies on how charters secretly and illegally select the most promising students. Barbara Madeloni became president of the Massachusetts Education Association and in November of 2016, successfully organized the state’s teachers and citizens to defeat Question 2—a ballot initiative that would have lifted a rigid cap on the startup of new charter schools.  After the election, Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, dug through the records of funders of the pro-Question 2 campaign and discovered the bundling of illegal gifts from out of state donors.  Cunningham’s work put New York’s hedge-fund backed Families for Excellent Schools out of business when Massachusetts imposed huge fines.

Ravitch ultimately credits the RedforEd wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 for forcing the public to question Goliath’s narrative: “The teachers taught the nation a lesson… They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect.  That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years… The politicians thought that they could silence teachers by breaking their unions. They were wrong. Teachers learned that together they had power. And they won’t forget that lesson.”

Even though Goliath has not died, the giant’s energy is flagging.  Ravitch believes, the Resistance has taught us to keep on keeping on with all the skill and energy we can muster.  Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, will be on bookstore shelves on January 21.  It is now available for pre-order.  I urge you to get a copy and read it carefully.