ECOT Scandal Simmers Along as Ohio Election Issue this November

The surprise really ought to be that the 17-year, billion dollar ripoff of tax dollars by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has remained among high profile election issues in this 2018 election season.  After all, when USA Today profiled 28 American cities which have not yet recovered from the 2008 Recession, 9 of them were in Ohio: Warren, Youngstown, Mansfield, Marion, Lorain, Middletown, Sandusky, Akron and Dayton. Besides the economy, the opioid crisis is devastating parts of the state and healthcare more generally is an issue.

But the ECOT scandal hasn’t died as an issue on voters’ minds. Partly this is due to clever work by public education advocates and Democrats. When ECOT’s property was auctioned off, an anonymous purchaser paid $152 in taxes and fees to buy the costume of ECOT’s mascot, Eddy the Eagle. You can watch Eddy on twitter, @EddyEagleECOT, traveling to political events across the state carrying his “Ask Me About Mike DeWine” sign.  DeWine, running as Ohio’s Republican candidate for governor, has been Ohio’s attorney general since 2010 but only filed a lawsuit to recover tax dollars lost to ECOT last winter as the school was being shut down.

Because of the way Ohio distributes state aid and the way its charter school law works, over its 17-year life, ECOT ate up local school operating levy dollars in addition to state aid. A tech-savvy opponent of Ohio’s entrenched Republican majority has now set up https://www.kidsnotcorruption.com/ , an interactive website which describes ECOT: ECOT THE SCANDAL: Wondering just how bad is the ECOT scandal? Well, you should be angry because ECOT is the biggest taxpayer ripoff in Ohio history and Republicans are responsible. Sadly, it’s our kids who were hurt.” At this website it is possible to track how much each Ohio school district has lost to ECOT over the years: for example, from Cleveland’s schools, $ 39,405,981; from Columbus’ schools, $591,000,000; from Cincinnati’s schools, $ 14,648,988.

Several local school districts have now initiated legal action on their own against ECOT to recover lost funds, and three other school districts so far have filed in court to argue that they do not want Attorney General Mike DeWine, who earlier this year filed to recover funds from ECOT, representing them. The Dayton Daily NewsJosh Sweigart reports: “Springfield City Schools is joining Dayton Public Schools and the Logan-Hocking School District in arguing in court that they don’t want the state representing them in getting money from ECOT. The school districts argue that Attorney General Mike DeWine—the Republican candidate for governor—is soft on charter schools and has received campaign donations from ECOT founder Bill Lager… DPS and Springfield are both working with the Cleveland-based law firm Cohen, Rosenthal and Kramer. The firm is working on a contingency fee, meaning it gets paid only if the districts succeed… (T)he districts are skeptical that DeWine would be as aggressive as their attorney.”

William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, notes, in his October 11, Daily E-Mail, that Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a memorandum opposing the intervention of local school districts in this case on their own because their interest is “substantively remote from the claims” in the Attorney General’s lawsuit.  Phillis notes that William Lager, ECOT’s founder and operator has made “essentially the same arguments” to oppose the intervention by specific school districts on their own behalf.  Phillis comments: “It is curious that both the Plaintiff and Defendant in this case are on the same page. That accord might validate the importance of intervention by the districts.  If they agree on this matter, maybe they will agree on more substantial issues.”

On October 8, the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Cleveland attorney, Steve Dettelbach for attorney general in the fall election over his opponent Dave Yost, the current Republican state auditor.  Yost was elected to that post in November, 2010.  He has been accused of moving too slowly against ECOT, and the Plain Dealer‘s endorsement reflects this concern: “There is a tiebreaker in this decision however, and it comes in the form of the long-running ECOT… scandal that has hung like a millstone around the neck of a number of Republicans on the Ohio ballot this year who took large campaign contributions from those connected to the now-shuttered online school.  That includes Yost, who announced he’s given more than $29,000 in ECOT-related contributions to charity but denies the campaign donations impacted his actions… But the fact remains that the whistleblower’s warning came in 2014 and Yost’s office did not start investigating with gusto until 2016.”

Meanwhile, on October 10, Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D)—running for re-election in November, joined the ranking member of the Senate’s education committee, Patty Murray (D-WA) to request that the federal Government Accountability Office investigate the operation of online charter schools across the United States. In his re-election bid, Brown already leads his Republican opponent in November by an enormous margin, and perhaps Brown’s distant, Washington, D.C. request for an investigation of e-charter schools will barely ripple across Ohio.  But the request puts Brown, Ohio’s only statewide elected Democrat, on record as someone aware of the 17-year online charter school scandal in his home state, where Republicans have controlled the statehouse and all elected state offices since 2011.

In their letter requesting an investigation by the GAO, Senators Murray and Brown explain: “Research on virtual charter schools shows that students attending such schools perform much worse than their peers receiving in-person instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools…  Despite these negative outcomes, most states distribute funding to virtual charter schools as they would to brick-and-mortar schools.  And yet, there is limited information on how operators allocate those public dollars to educate students and manage company operations. This is especially problematic as the majority of virtual charter schools are either explicitly operated by or connected to for-profit companies that have perverse incentives to minimize the cost of instruction and student supports in order to boost their bottom line. Accountability models, funding formulas, and attendance policies were created for brick-and-mortar schools, and yet, state funding and accountability policies have not kept pace with the growth of virtual charter schools.  States and districts have yet to identify models that will effectively measure student participation and attendance rates in online schools.  As a result, it is difficult to determine how many students these schools are serving and how much funding they should receive.  For example, in Ohio, (the) Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) concealed attendance numbers as well as student participation and graduation rates for years before the state and local regulators acted.”

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Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just released its annual update on state funding for higher education. In 45 states, state funding per-student in public four-year and two-year colleges and universities remains below what it was before the Great Recession a decade ago. The only exceptions are California, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Thirty-one states cut higher education funding in the past year.

Here is the report’s overall conclusion: “A decade since the Great Recession hit, state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historical levels. Overall state funding for public two-and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. In the most difficult years after the recession, colleges responded to significant funding cuts by increasing tuition, reducing faculty, limiting course offerings, and in some cases closing campuses.  Funding has rebounded slightly since then, but costs remain high and services in some places have not returned… To build a prosperous economy—one in which the benefits of higher education are broadly shared and felt by every community regardless of race or class—lawmakers will need to invest in high-quality, affordable, and accessible public higher education by increasing funding for public two-and four-year colleges and by pursuing policies that allow more students to pursue affordable postsecondary education.”

Over the decade state support for public higher education fell 16 percent per-student (adjusted for inflation)—with Arizona cutting per-student funding by 55.7 percent—more than half.  On average during the past year alone, public funding for higher education remained virtually unchanged—with 18 states increasing funding and 31 states reducing public support.

Tuition continues to climb: “Since the 2008 school year, average annual published tuition has risen by $2,651 nationally, or 36 percent.” Tuition increases in some states are shocking: Louisiana up by 105.4 percent, Arizona by 91.3 percent, Hawaii  by 79.7 percent, and Georgia by 73.4 percent.  “In Arizona, the state with the largest dollar increase since the recession hit, tuition has risen $5,355 per student….”

The report examines the broader consequences of these trends: driving economic inequality: “Over time, students and their families have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education… At the same time, this growing burden on students and families coincided with a multi-decade increase in the number of students from communities of color attending college… By 2010, that number had more than doubled to over 36 percent, and today over 40 percent of students attending public two-and four-year colleges are students of color.”

The consequence is rising debt: “Between the 2008 and 2015 school years, the share of students graduating with debt from a public four-year institution rose from 55 percent to 59 percent.”

As a society we are nowhere near the provision of free tuition for all at public colleges and universities. The report, however, describes steps states could take to make college more affordable to the students with the greatest needs.  States should: “focus additional state funds on building the capacity of colleges with fewer resources,” “which often teach the students most in need of additional resources and supports.”  Increasing needs-based rather than merit-based financial aid should be a priority.  And more states could permit Dreamers—undocumented immigrant students who have lived in the United States since early childhood—to qualify for in-state college tuition: “All told, undocumented students are now eligible for in-state tuition rates in 21 states plus the District of Columbia and have access to state financial aid in 11 states.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities includes a reminder about public finance, at a time when many states continue to cut taxes: “State and local tax revenue is a major source of support for public colleges and universities. Unlike private institutions, which rely more heavily on charitable donations and large endowments to help fund instruction, public two-and four-year colleges… rely heavily on state and local appropriations.  In 2017, state and local dollars constituted 54 percent of the funds these institutions used directly for teaching and instruction.”

Stunning New Book Contextualizes Tragedy of 2013 School Closures in Chicago’s Hyper-Segregated History

Eve Ewing’s new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, explores the blindness, deafness, and heartlessness of technocratic, “portfolio school reform”* as it played out in 50 school closings in Chicago at the end of the school year in 2013. After months of hearings, the Chicago Public Schools didn’t even send formal letters to the teachers, parents and students in the schools finally chosen for closure.  People learned which schools had finally been shut down when the list was announced on television.

Eve Ewing, a professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a former teacher in one of the closed schools, brings her training as a sociologist to explore this question: “But why do people care about these failing schools?” (p. 13)  In four separate chapters, Ewing examines the question from different perspectives: (1) the meaning for the community of the closure of Dyett High School and the hunger strike that reopened the school; (2) the history of segregation in Chicago as part of the Great Migration, followed by the intensification of segregation in thousands of public housing units built and later demolished in the Bronzeville neighborhood; (3) the narratives of community members, teachers, parents and students about the meaning of their now-closed schools in contrast to the narrative of the portfolio school planners at Chicago Public Schools; and (4) the mourning that follows when important community institutions are destroyed.

We hear an English teacher describing the now-closed school where she had taught: “I never considered us as a failing school or failing teachers or failing students. I felt like pretty much everyone in that building was working really hard for those kids…. Trying to push them forward as far as they could go.” (p. 135)

And we hear Rayven Patrick, an eighth grader speaking about the importance of Mayo elementary school at the public hearing which preceded the school’s closure: “Most of my family have went to Mayo. My grandma attended. My mother, my aunt. I came from a big family. The Patricks are known in Mayo. Like, we have been going there for so long. Over the years I have watched lots of students graduate, and they were able to come back to their teachers and tell them how high school has been going. Most of them are in college now, and I see them come to the few teachers that are left at Mayo and tell them of their experience of college and high school. This year I will graduate. And most of the students at Mayo… They’re family to me.  Little sisters and little brothers. I walk through the hallway, and every kid knows who I am. I’m able to speak to them, and I honestly, I wanna be able to watch them graduate.” (pp. 108-109)

Ewing also shares the justification for the 50 school closures by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school district CEO: “But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized schools. These underutilized schools are also under-resourced.” (p. 4)

Throughout the book, teachers, students, parents, and grandparents point out the irony that Byrd-Bennett has criticized their now-closed school for being under-resourced.  She is herself the person with enough power to have changed the funding formula that left some schools with ever-diminishing resources. Community members also complain again and again that at the same time neighborhood public schools are being shut down, the school district has been encouraging rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

But Ewing, the sociologist, also examines the justification read at the school closure hearing by Brittany Meadows, the Chicago Public Schools Portfolio Planner.  Here is just a short section of Meadows’s explanation: “To understand the enrollment efficiency range of a facility, Chicago Public Schools utilizes its space utilization standards which are located in your binder at Tab 14. The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment.  For elementary school buildings, the ideal enrollment is defined as the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30…  As such, the enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is tween 552 and 828 students.  As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408.  This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (p. 100)

Ewing responds to Meadows’ presentation: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range’….  Meadows presents this data using an ‘if…then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved.  In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable.  Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency rate, this is what happens next…  The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts.  These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable. These quantifiable facts are also seen as a necessity—perhaps an imperfect measure, but a needed force for decision making….” (p. 101) (Emphasis in the original.)

Not only Ewing’s chapter about the Bronzeville community’s grief for its closed schools but also the entire book portrays the enormity of the historic mistake of technocratic, top-down school reform in Chicago. You must read Ghosts in the Schoolyard to hear the sadness of the children and their families and the despair of the teachers.  At the end of her story, Ewing wonders: “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)

*The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

How School Choice in Michigan Accelerates Student Mobility, Stresses Educators, and Undermines Education

Yesterday this blog examined how two school choice policies in Michigan—the rapid expansion of charter school choice and cross-district open enrollment that allows students to leave their school district and enroll in a nearby school district—are together undermining the fiscal viability of Michigan’s public school districts. Here, thanks to a collaboration between Chalkbeat, Bridge Magazine, and the Detroit Free Press is the story of how these very same policies are undermining teaching and learning in the Detroit Public Schools.

Reporters Erin Einhorn and Chastity Pratt Dawsey describe how cross-district and charter school choice are accelerating student churn as children change schools again and again.  In Detroit, the subject of the article, student mobility is also exacerbated by homelessness and foreclosure and other challenges posed by extreme poverty across the school population. But there is an additional factor: Detroit is part of a network of so-called “portfolio school districts” which are managed as though they are part of a business portfolio—establish choice; then phase out the bad investments and try something new and let families enforce accountability as they move with their feet.  According to the new report on student mobility in Detroit, school choice has resulted over the years in “nearly 200 school closures” as students tried out other possibilities.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school superintendent, explains: “You can’t create trust between a student and parent and a school when you have this constant disruption… It’s hard to hold teachers accountable to performance if children are not consistently in their classrooms. We are going to set teachers, schools, and principals up for failure if we don’t acknowledge that.”

Einhorn and Dawsey describe a very complicated problem: “In Detroit, there are many reasons why schools are in crisis. There are overcrowded classrooms and buildings in poor condition. There are children experiencing trauma at home unable to find a quiet place—or a reason—to do their homework.  But spend time in almost any Detroit school, and educators will tell you that perhaps the single most significant factor standing in the way of children’s success is this: Students don’t stay…  Here, decades of evictions, foreclosures, and financial distress have ravaged communities and destabilized housing.  Nearly 200 school closures have distanced families from what used to be neighborhood schools.  And state policies, engineered in part by Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary, have created one of the most robust systems of school choice in the nation. The effect: A recent analysis by two Wayne State University professors found that roughly one in three elementary school students changes schools every year—often in the middle of the school year… When the Wayne State professors, Sarah Winchell Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, analyzed data from Detroit district and charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, they found that nearly 60 percent of students who live in Detroit—almost 50,000 children—were enrolled in two or more Detroit schools that year… That includes nearly 7,000 children who were enrolled in three schools that year and about 900 children who were enrolled in four or more schools in a single year.”

The reporters continue: “Michigan’s educational system allows for an unlimited number of charter schools, and lets families cross city lines to enroll in neighboring districts.  The system encourages families to shop around for the right choice. But in a city where most schools are struggling, parents wanting the best for their child might not be happy with the first, second, or third school they try. They might keep searching, and might end up causing serious harm.”

Profiling students graduating from eighth grade at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, the reporters share students’ stories of feeling displaced and trying to fit in. They also share the frustrations of teachers who too often discover a new child in class, someone who arrived without notice and without records.  A science teacher meets a student at the door at the end of a class to inquire whether the student is visiting from another class: “No, Gabrielle answered, “I’m new.”  “Oh,” her teacher said. “Welcome.”

Just as students arrive unannounced, “At the same time, other students disappear. They’re in class one day, raising their hands to ask a question or volunteering to solve a math problem. The next day they’re gone, a single-day absence that soon turns to weeks. Staff often don’t know where they’ve gone until another school calls for their records.”

It is not surprising that, “When a new student transfers into the school, paperwork documenting student disabilities and spelling out therapies and support for those children is supposed to come with them. The child’s former school, when requested, is supposed to send over transcripts, test scores, and other paperwork. But teachers say it can take weeks to get a student’s transcript from another school, even from other schools in the same district. The state education department is developing a centralized data system that, in the next few years, will enable schools to quickly access the records of new students. But for now, schools must make the request, then hope for a timely response.  If it takes too long, the new teacher might never know whether the child who just arrived had behavioral problems in her last school, or if his last teacher thought he might need glasses.”

“Ads for online schools, charter schools, and suburban schools”  on the radio “lure families out of the Detroit school system.” The tragedy, as the reporters explain, is that, “Student transience affects nearly every school in Detroit.”

Bethune Elementary-Middle School’s principal Alisanda Woods perfectly understands the problem and grasps, as well, how little she can do to support the teachers and the children: “Some of these kids have a lot of problems that nobody’s addressing, and they’re coming in and a lot of times they’re unstable… Our teachers will receive these children and work with them from the time they walk through the door until the time they leave… But then new students arrive and we have to start all over again.”

Please read this fine reporting: In Detroit, Students Move from School to School at Dizzying Pace.

How Can School Choice Destroy the Public Schools in Your Community?

In his column last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant examines a scary question: Can school choice create the conditions that entirely shut down a community’s public school system?  Bryant reports on Michigan where school choice laws permitting inter-district open enrollment and unregulated expansion of charter schools conspire with the state’s school finance system to undermine the stability of the state’s public school districts.

“In Michigan, the intense competition for students is taking bigger bites out of student enrollments in some of the state’s largest districts.  In Flint, where there are 14,325 public-school students living in the district, 39 percent attend charters and 32 percent are enrolled in another district—meaning the district loses 71 percent of its students.  In Pontiac, with 10,985 public-school students living in the district, 36 percent attend charters and 29 percent travel to other districts, leaving local schools with only 35 percent of the community’s students.  In Detroit, the state’s largest school district with nearly 104,000 students, 58 percent of them leave the district schools to attend charters (48 percent) or cross district borders (10 percent) to attend schools elsewhere.  How low can student enrollments go before a school district becomes financially unsustainable?”

Bryant explains the thinking of school choice promoters: “The thinking behind a market-based approach to education is that when the funding follows the student, school districts vying across district lines to get their enrollments high for ‘count day,’ feel more intense pressure to provide services with greater financial efficiency.  Adding charter schools, which in Michigan are allowed to start up wherever they want, without regard to the financial impact on district schools, brings into the mix an unregulated agent that can introduce even more financial efficiency into the system, the theory goes.” (Emphasis is mine.)  Then Bryant interviews experts to show why the theory doesn’t work as intended.

Bryant quotes Michigan State University’s David Arnsen on the damage wrought when charter schools reach the point of enrolling 20 percent of a district’s students: “(O)verwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

Bryant also quotes the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker, who explains the factors that contribute to making school choice unsustainable for a school district—“insufficient total revenue, the increased costs of serving special needs children left behind, the mounting health and retirement benefits of teachers, the increased costs of operating and maintaining old, inefficient buildings, and of course rapidly declining enrollment which creates additional financial pressure.”

A growing number of academic research studies in recent years has raised the alarm about the problem Bryant believes is reaching crisis levels in many of Michigan’s school districts. The evidence grows that a rapidly expanding charter school sector is likely to function as a parasite killing the host school district.

In a May 2018, report for In the Public Interest, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how charter school expansion has been undermining several California local school districts: “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. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… 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.”

In a May, 2017, report, Closed by Choice: The Spatial Relationship Between Charter School Expansion, School Closures, and Fiscal Stress in Chicago Public Schools, a group of Roosevelt University researchers describes what has happened to the public schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides due to the rapid expansion of school choice in areas already losing population: “Chicago Public Schools’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system.  While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

And in the 2015 Michigan State University report quoted by Jeff Bryant, Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why? Michigan’s Story, David Arnsen warns that Michigan law seems especially designed to destroy public school districts’ fiscal stability as students move to charters or move to nearby school districts via cross-district open enrollment: “Michigan offers an interesting case of a state with a highly centralized school finance system in which the state sets per pupil funding levels for each district, and most operating revenues follow students when they move among districts or charter schools.  Districts have very limited authority to raise additional tax revenues for school operations from local sources. Consequently local responses to financial stress focus primarily on efforts to reduce spending… Nearly all funding moves with students when they transfer to other districts or charter schools, and local districts have very little discretion to raise additional tax revenues.”

In perhaps the most lucid explanation of the way state charter and school choice laws are proactively destroying local school districts, we must turn to the very school finance expert to whom Jeff Bryant spoke this week—Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “One might characterize this as a parasitic… model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

What to Do to Support Students Who Are Chronically Absent from School?

Two new reports—from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and from Attendance Works—explore chronic student absenteeism and its consequences for student achievement and graduation.  Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must begin reporting data about students’ chronic absence in their accountability reports.  Attendance Works even posts an online interactive map from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution where a person can find chronic absence data about one’s own school district.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing not just days but also weeks of school.  Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as, “missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.”  While all school districts record students’ absences from school, until recent years most have not tracked each individual student’s accrued absences over the semester or the school year. Now school districts are required to watch and intervene when individual students’ attendance patterns become worrisome.

What is clear is that, while there are a number of ways researchers measure students’ chronic absence from school, the problem is serious:  When students miss too much school, they learn less, they fall behind, and they are more likely to drop out without graduating.  And students who are poor are more likely to miss school.

Writing for Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes explain: “Especially hard hit are children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or frequent moves.  When chronic absence reaches high levels in a school or classroom, it can affect every student’s opportunity to learn, because the resulting churn—with students cycling in and out of the classroom—is disruptive for all and hampers teachers’ ability to meet students’ diverse learning needs.”

And before they delve into a data analysis, EPI researchers, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss summarize past research: “Poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status… changes in adult household composition (e.g. adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g. children looking after siblings)—along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g. lack of adequate transprtation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.)—are all associated with a greater likelihood of being absent, and particularly with being chronically absent.”

When we think about chronic absence, most of us think about students who cut school to hang out—students who are bored or disaffected.  But other issues are harder to address.  One teacher I know told me about a student who was late every day because she had to wait to come to school until a van came to take her quadriplegic mother to a care center. Another teacher who has been substituting in a huge high school told me he was frustrated because in the five sections of the English class he had to teach every day, it seemed that a different group of students was present each day. It seemed baffling to cope with the churn.

From the University of California at Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute, David Kirp describes a new program in Los Angeles that seems to be paying off: “The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.”  Many parents, he writes, are unaware that their children are missing school: “To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year.”  The letters are simple: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates—16 days so far in this school year… Students fall behind when they miss school. …Absences matter and you can help.”  Kirp reports that chronic absenteeism has dropped not only in Los Angeles, but also by 10 or 15 percent in Philadelphia and Chicago after such reporting to parents becomes routine.

The research from EPI and Attendance Works, however, indicates that chronic absenteeism very frequently reflects that students who miss school are facing serious health and family challenges which can be addressed only through additional support by teachers, counselors and social workers to help students find ways to make their own schooling a priority even when other problems intervene.

Two primary school reforms come to mind. The first is to make classes small enough that teachers can really come to know their students and the barriers for students that make school attendance difficult.  This is harder in a middle school or high school, however, where teachers work with likely five classes a day—a total of 125 students even when class size is kept at 25 students.

The benefits of wrap-around, full-service Community Schools (see here or here) become apparent in the context of such challenges.  With medical and dental clinics located in the school, parents don’t have to keep kids out of school because they have forgotten the necessary immunizations. The toothache can be addressed promptly with only an hour away from class. Such schools also employ social workers to help families balance the responsibilities that sometimes put care-giving in conflict with school and to help parents and students address issues like transportation.

These schools are also designed to welcome families warmly and authentically. In Community Schools in Action (Oxford University Press, 2005), the assistant director of the New York Children’s Aid Society National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, Hersilia Mendez describes the role of parent outreach and parent engagement in a Community School: “In its work in Community Schools, the Children’s Aid Society sees parents as assets and key allies, not as burdens; we aim not only to increase the number of parents involved in their children’s education but also to deepen the intensity of their involvement and to encourage greater participation in their children’s future. As we engage parents in skills workshops and advocacy events, we also create a critical link to the home, allowing us to serve and empower whole families… The Children’s Aid Society wanted to erase the mixed invitation that schools often extend to parents—that parents should be involved in their children’s schooling but only on the school’s terms and often in rather menial ways… For an immigrant like me… Public School 5’s warm atmosphere was beyond belief.  The beautifully furnished family room, the smell of fresh coffee, the presence of so many parents at all times, and, in particular, the friendly disposition of the staff were heartwarming. To me, it was an inconceivable atmosphere to find in any school, let alone a New York City public school… The parent involvement model is culturally responsive and provides multiple entry points for meeting parents at their level as well as multiple opportunities to engage with, support, and strengthen the school.” (pp. 42-45)

Office of Inspector General Again Condemns U.S. Department of Education’s Oversight of Federal Charter School Dollars

For many good reasons, we are prone to blame Betsy DeVos, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, for weakening regulations in the Department of Education.  She has, for example, eliminated regulations designed to protect student borrowers from predatory for-profit colleges and cut back civil rights enforcement in the public schools.  But a new report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) once again disparages Arne Duncan, and his lax oversight of federal dollars flowing to charter schools.  The new report documents that when charter schools have closed or been shut down, the Department has failed to ensure that federal dollars flowing to the schools from Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the federal Charter Schools Program were properly tracked. Further, students’ records from the closed schools were not properly protected.

The report condemns a trend of poor oversight: This is the third major report in which the Department of Education’s OIG has documented poor management of federal dollars flowing to charter schools.  Reports from the Department of Education’s OIG in 2012 and 2016 also disparaged Duncan’s charter school oversight. It is not likely, however, that Betsy DeVos, a libertarian, will improve the Department’s regulatory role.

The new 2018, OIG report examines whether the U.S. Department of Education has a process for adequately monitoring the management of federal dollars and the management of student records and data when charter schools are closed. OIG examined charter school closures in three states between 2011 and 2015.  Defining privately operated charter schools as public schools for the purpose of this report, the OIG notes that in the 2015-2016 school year, there were 98,277 public schools across the United States, among which 6,855 were charter schools.  Between 2011 and 2015, 977 of the charter schools closed.  OIG studied charter school closures in three states: Arizona, which had the highest number of closed charter schools authorized by the same authorizer; California, which had more charter schools than any other state and more students enrolled in charter schools; and Louisiana, which had the highest ratio of charter school closures relative to the number of charter schools in the state.  In its 2018 report, OIG examines the procedures used in 89 of the closed charter schools—45 in Arizona, 31 in California, and 13 in Louisiana.  OIG explains: “The purpose of the audit (is) to determine whether the U.S. Department of Education has effective oversight of the programs provided to charter schools….”

The OIG begins its report by reassuring us—in oxymoronic language— that, “Charter schools are nonsectarian, publicly funded schools of choice that are intended to be held accountable for their academic and financial performance in return for reduced governmental regulation.”  Maybe the myth that charters can be held accountable without accountability explains why the Department of Education hasn’t done so well with with preventing the kind of problems the report describes.

The 2018, OIG report charges that the Department of Education has not provided adequate guidance to enable states and local school districts to comply with the federal laws and regulations they must follow to protect Title I, IDEA and Charter Schools Program dollars when charter schools are shut down. Neither Arizona, California, nor Louisiana had developed required procedures for tracking how the assets of charter schools were disposed after the schools were closed. The report notes that in September of 2015, the Department of Education sent a letter to state departments of education to remind them “of their role in helping to ensure that Federal funds received by charter schools are used for intended and appropriate purposes.”  OIG explains, however, that, “The Dear Colleague Letter did not specifically discuss charter school closures.”  Neither has the Department adequately monitored states’ charter school closure processes. “The Title I, IDEA, and CSP program offices did not incorporate a review of charter school closure procedures into their State Education Agency monitoring tools.”

The 2018, OIG report continues: “During our audit period, the Department did not consider charter school closures to be a risk to Federal funds; therefore, the Title I, IDEA, and CSP program offices did not prioritize providing guidance to State Education Agencies on how to manage the charter school closure process….”  “Without adequate Department guidance provided to the State Education Agencies and sufficient State Education Agency and authorizer oversight and monitoring of charter school closure processes, the risk of significant fraud, waste, and abuse of Federal programs’ funds is high.  The growing number of charter schools, from 1,993 in School Year 2000-2001 to 6,855 in School Year 2015-2016, and the number of charter schools that closed, ranging from 72 in School Year 2000-2001 to 308 in School Year 2014-2015, require the Department’s program offices to develop and implement a modified approach to overseeing the State Education Agencies.”

Finally: “We found there was no assurance that for the sampled closed charter schools (1) Federal funds were properly closed within the required period, (2) assets aquired with Federal funds were properly disposed of, and (3) the students’ personally identifiable information was properly protected and maintained.”

OIG’s earlier reports criticized the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which operates the federal Charter Schools Program, for its failure to monitor problems in the relationships of the charter schools receiving federal grants with the Charter Management Organizations providing services to the schools. In its 2012 report critiquing the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department’s OIG exposed the Department’s failure to ensure careful oversight of federal funds by the state departments of education that received the grants, and confirmed the Department’s failure to regulate Charter School Management Organizations charged with overseeing the operations of the schools supposedly under their purview.  In its 2016 report, OIG again condemned the Department of Education’s oversight.  OIG described the majority of charter schools studied lacking internal controls in their relationships with their management companies to prevent conflicts of interest. The lack of internal controls, explained the report, subjects the schools to the danger of financial risk and presents a lack of accountability for federal funds.  Further the 2016 report charged that for charter schools receiving federal Charter Schools Program funding, the Department had failed adequately to identify and mitigate risks in the relationship of specific charters to their Charter Management Organizations.

A primary policy irony of the past quarter century has been the creation by neoliberals and libertarians of school competition—via an unregulated, unaccountable, privately operated charter school sector—as the primary mechanism of public school accountability.  Instead we’ve been left with an unaccountable charter school sector stealing precious public education funding.