The Real Reason Betsy DeVos Tried to Fire Her Own Department’s Inspector General

Betsy DeVos is back in the news.  She recently tried to fire the U.S. Department of Education’s Acting Inspector General, Sandra Bruce, and replace her with Phil Rosenfelt, who has been serving as the Department of Education’s General Council. Democrats in Congress criticized the nomination of Rosenfelt because the Office of Inspector General in any federal department is supposed to be an objective watchdog—independent from the operation and policies of the department it oversees.

When Democrats raised concerns, DeVos backtracked and reinstated Sandra Bruce in her old job.

Early in February, the Washington Post’s Laura Meckler explained: “The White House backed down Friday from plans to install a longtime Education Department official as the agency’s acting inspector general following an outcry from congressional Democrats… President Trump had already signed papers designating Philip H. Rosenfelt, a career lawyer who works in the Education Department’s general-council office, as acting inspector general. The move was never officially announced, but Education Department leaders notified the inspector general’s office and lawmakers that it was official.” Congressional Democratic leaders had formally complained: “The conflicts or appearances of conflict are a result of Mr. Rosenfelt’s prior work in the Department’s Office of General Council, which has a role implementing virtually all programs that the inspector general investigates…”

Now, however, it turns out that DeVos’s motive for trying to fire Sandra Bruce was far more suspicious than just an attempt to hire someone who would protect the pet projects of the Department. It looks as though DeVos tried to fire Sandra Bruce because, as part of her job as Inspector General, Bruce was investigating DeVos’s reinstatement last November of Departmental approval for a shady accrediting agency of for-profit colleges, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). Late in 2015, The Obama Department of Education had removed approval of ACICS as a federal accreditor of for-profit colleges.

A brief review…

Why does federal accreditation of for-profit colleges matter?  For-profit colleges and trade schools depend for almost all of their operating revenue on federal grants and loans and the G.I Bill, but in order to receive federal loans and grants, a for-profit college must be accredited by a government-approved accrediting agency.

You will remember that two enormous for-profit colleges—Corinthian Colleges (in 2015) and ITT Technical Institutes (in 2016)— suddenly shut down, leaving their students without an education and with lingering debt.  The shutdowns occurred after the Obama Department of Education determined they were insolvent and denied them access to future federal loans and grants. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) had accredited these institutions, however, despite that ACICS knew they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As a result of its failure to perform its responsibility as an accreditor, the Obama Department of Education stripped ACICS of federal approval to serve as an accreditor on behalf of the federal government.

However, as the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported, last November DeVos reinstated ACICS: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos… restored federal recognition to a controversial agency that accredits for-profit colleges, reversing an Obama administration decision to put it out of business. The move is one in a number of steps DeVos has taken to undo an Obama-era crackdown that she argues unfairly targeted for-profit schools for scrutiny not applied to other colleges. But critics say she is propping up an industry with a record of misleading students….”

How does the threatened firing of the Department of Education’s Acting Inspector General connect with the reinstatement of ACICS as an approved accreditor of for-profit colleges?

On Tuesday—day before yesterday—NBC News‘s Heidi Przybyla reported: “House and Senate Democrats say they have obtained evidence that a senior official at the Department of Education tried to oust the department’s independent watchdog after she (Sandra Bruce) pushed back on an attempt to intervene in an active investigation of Secretary Betsy DeVos. Lawmakers from four House and Senate committees who oversee the department sent a letter to DeVos on Tuesday suggesting that the effort to replace the department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, had been related to her duties in overseeing the probe of DeVos’s decision to reinstate ACICS, an accreditor that had been stripped of its certification by the Obama administration.” Przybyla continues describing Congressional leaders’ concerns, according to Chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott: “In this case, Scott cites a letter dated Jan. 3, obtained from Education Department deputy secretary Mitchell Zais to Bruce.  In the letter, Zais wrote that he found it ‘disturbing’ Bruce was proceeding with the probe of ACICS and ‘asked (her) to reconsider any plan’ to review the department’s decision to restore its accreditation.”

Przybyla continues: “Bruce, Scott said, then ‘communicated her plans to continue’ the investigation and ‘underscored the importance of maintaining independence from the department.’  A few weeks later, Zais notified Bruce that she would be removed from the position.”

Describing a pattern of suspected interference by Trump officials with the work of the departmental Inspector Generals, Przybyla comments: “The exchange between Zais and Bruce as described in Scott’s letter underscores a concern expressed across a number of federal agencies—that the Trump administration is attempting to blur what are supposed to be clear lines between Cabinet officials and the independent investigative arms that exist to police their policies, conduct and use of taxpayer dollars.”

Michael Stratford also covered the story this week for POLITICO: “Congressional Democrats said Tuesday they have uncovered evidence that the Trump administration tried to influence an internal watchdog’s investigation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  Five top House and Senate Democrats said that the Trump administration sought to remove the Education Department’s acting inspector general last month after she pushed back on a request to ‘reconsider’ her investigation into DeVos’ move to reinstate a controversial accreditor of for-profit colleges… The lawmakers asked DeVos to turn over more documents relating to the decision to install a new acting inspector general as well as communications between political appointees and the Office of the Inspector General…. They asked the Education Department to provide the records and other information by March 5.”

Advocates for the rights of military Veterans weigh in…

In a stunning NY Times opinion piece on Monday of this week, two Veterans’ advocates, James Schmeling of Student Veterans of America and Carrie Wofford of Veterans Education Success condemn DeVos’s policies to deregulate for-profit colleges.  These schools, they explain, take advantage of vulnerable student Veterans who can pay tuition with money from the G.I Bill: “Despite robust objections from roughly three dozen national Veterans and military service organizations, Secretary DeVos elected to eviscerate student protections and quality controls for colleges—particularly those governing the often low-quality, predatory for-profit colleges that target Veterans in their marketing schemes… Why are Veterans the targets?… Hundreds of for-profit schools are almost entirely dependent on federal revenue… Taxpayers, in other words, are largely propping up otherwise failing schools… Overall, by 2017, for-profit colleges had vacuumed up nearly 40 percent of all G.I. Bill tuition and fee payments since the post-9/11 G.I. Bill was introduced.  Eight of the 10 schools receiving the most G.I. Bill subsidies since 2009 are for-profit colleges. Six of those 10 have faced government legal action for defrauding students.”

Schmelling and Wofford name specific policies in which DeVos’s department has rolled back regulation of the for-profit college sector: “Ms. DeVos has largely delegated policymaking and enforcement to members of the for-profit college industry, who are now her aides… The fox is running the henhouse.  Ms. DeVos fought and is now stalling defrauded students’ right to recourse under the Borrower Defense rule, and she eliminated a rule requiring career colleges to prove their graduates can get a job, even after being officially warned by the department’s Office of Inspector General that the rule was necessary to protect taxpayer funds.”

Schmelling and Wofford conclude: “The Education Department’s Office of Inspector General, following the V.A.’s lead, conducted an investigation of Ms. DeVos after she reinstated the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, which had been discredited.  Career civil servants on her own staff had determined that ACICS had failed to meet 57 of 93 basic federal quality standards—including its inadequate oversite of the now-defunct, Veteran-hungry schools, ITT Technical Institutes and Corinthian Colleges. Both were for-profits whose bankruptcies left countless Veteran students with deep debt and rubbish degrees.”

It is easy to understand why Betsy DeVos would want to replace Sandra Bruce, the Education Department’s Acting Inspector General who has been investigating the performance of her boss—Betsy DeVos.  One can only hope that pressure from the leaders of key Congressional committees along with pressure from Veterans’ agencies might motivate the President to replace Betsy DeVos herself.

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West Virginia House Kills Education Bill After Teachers Strike to Block School Privatization

Yesterday, Tuesday, West Virginia’s teachers walked out to protest an omnibus education bill moving through the state legislature. The bill, known as Senate Bill 451, included another pay raise for teachers, but the Republican dominated West Virginia Senate had also inserted poison pills—authorization for seven charter schools and a statewide education savings account neo-voucher program for 1000 eligible students with special needs.

At noon yesterday, as schools were shut down in 54 of the state’s 55 counties and teachers from across the state had gathered at the statehouse, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to table Senate Bill 451 indefinitely—killing the bill.

Teachers announced last night, however, that their strike will continue through today, Wednesday, because of fears that some members of the legislature will try to resurrect the bill.  All of the state’s public schools have been closed today.

Yesterday’s statewide walkout was almost exactly a year after the state’s teachers struck for decent pay.  At the end of last year’s strike, teachers won a 5 percent raise.  In October, Governor Jim Justice promised teachers an additional raise this year.

West Virginia is among the states that has, until now, not pursued marketplace school choice through the creation of charter schools or any kind of voucher program. The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education recently graded West Virginia A+ for its commitment to public education and its avoidance of these schemes to privatize the public schools.

This week’s sudden teachers’ strike broke an impasse in an all-Red state, with a Republican governor, and Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature.  The Senate had, however, shown itself to be more ideological, filling the omnibus Senate Bill 451 with ideas straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers model legislation for the very programs that seemed to be priorities of key Republicans in the West Virginia Senate—charter schools and education savings account neo-vouchers.

When the original Senate Bill 451 moved to the West Virginia House of Delegates over a week ago modifications ensued. By examining how the House altered the Senate version, it is easy to see why teachers understood the original bill as the Senate’s retaliation against their strike a year ago. The House amended the bill by slashing out the education savings account vouchers and paring down the charter school pilot program to two new schools.  For West Virginia Metro News, Brad McElhinny explains the amendments added last week by the House: “The bill changed in several key ways during almost two weeks of consideration in the House.  A non-severability clause was removed right away.  That would have meant the whole bill, including the teacher pay raise would have been struck down if any element were successfully challenged in court.  A ‘paycheck protection’ provision was removed too.  That would nave mandated annual approval for teachers union members to have their dues withheld from paychecks.  Unions viewed it as an anti-organized labor provision.  The Senate’s version allowed charter schools. That’s still in the bill, but barely. House Education at first capped the charters at six. Now there’s a pilot program for two…  A provision establishing educational savings accounts was removed by delegates in decisive votes… The House Education committee also voted to remove an entire section detailing the consequences of a work stoppage. Originally, the bill specified withholding pay if a work stoppage closed schools… The Education Committee altered a section that would have removed seniority as the main factor in job retention.”

The strike this week was announced late on Monday after the House version of the bill was sent back to await Senate action.  McElhinny reported Monday night: “The House of Delegates, which also has a Republican majority, made significant changes to the bill last week, scaling back many of its original provisions.  But Monday afternoon, when the Senate got the bill again, leadership introduced one big amendment that would include 1,000 education savings accounts and up to seven charter schools… Union leaders said those changes, plus the perception that elected officials have not listened to educators, left no choice but to strike.”

Yesterday morning, after teachers walked out statewide, Governor Jim Justice declared in a radio interview that he would veto the bill if the version that reached his desk included the Senate’s amendment from Monday. Justice had previously asked for a clean bill to increase teachers’ pay, and now that SB 451 appears dead, the House of Delegates has added such a bill to its agenda today.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein commented yesterday on the meaning of this year’s strikes by schoolteachers: “American teachers in the past year have mounted the most sustained educator protest movement in decades. Their relentless string of mass walkouts continues this week in West Virginia, where education unions abruptly called a statewide strike on Monday evening, and in California, which is bracing for a districtwide strike on Thursday.  The movement started with cries for better pay and benefits for educators, and more funding for schools and classrooms. But it has evolved into a protest against the argument that has driven the… education reform agenda… that traditional public schools and the people who work in them are failing, and that they must be challenged by charter schools, private school vouchers, test-driven accountability and other forms of pressure to improve.”

This week West Virginia teachers are on strike to prevent an experiment with privatization—a scheme like the one that has for two decades been undermining the public schools in states like Arizona and California.  West Virginia’s teachers acted to protect their state from the kind of conditions privatization has wrought in Oakland, where teachers will strike tomorrow to stanch the flow of funds out of the public schools and into an ever-expanding charter school sector.

Oakland’s Teachers Will Strike Thursday to Protest Low Salaries, Fiscal Crisis, and School Closures

A predictable and tragic perfect storm is brewing in Oakland, California, where teachers will strike Thursday to protest low salaries and untenable conditions for students. The teachers union also intends its strike to protest the school district’s five year plan to close 24 traditional public schools. Like Los Angeles, Oakland’s financial crisis is related to California’s embrace of charter schools and the school district’s adoption of portfolio school reform, a governance plan by which the district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are  investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to launch new schools and close low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled. It is imagined that the competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been launched.

For EdSource, Theresa Harrington describes the district: “About 30 percent of the roughly 50,000 students in Oakland attend charter schools, leaving about 37,000 students enrolled in district schools. That enrollment shift is one of the reasons the district is looking to close 24 of its 86 schools over the next five years. The district has 44 charter schools. The Oakland teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, says the district made school closures a bargainable issue by linking its plan to close schools to its ability to meet teachers’ salary demands.  But the district disagrees and does not plan to bargain its closure plan.”

At the end of January, Harrington reported that the school board approved the closure of Roots International Academy, located in East Oakland and serving primarily African American and Latino/Latina students. Oakland’s school superintendent used the same argument to justify the school closures as administrators in Chicago used when that school district closed 50 schools in May of 2013: “Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and the school board members who voted for the closure said the decision was necessary to ‘right-size the district,’ which has too many schools for the number of students it is currently educating. The district’s enrollment of about 37,000 is expected to continue to drop by 2023.”

The Bay Area News Group‘s Nico Savidge reported last Saturday that Oakland’s teachers have set Thursday, February 21 as a firm strike date: “The Oakland Education Association has been without a contract since July 2017 and is seeking a new one that would deliver a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller class sizes and the hiring of additional counselors and nurses. The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years… District officials say they want to offer teachers better pay, but their hands are tied because Oakland Unified faces a budget deficit that is expected to reach $56 million by the 2020-2021 school year.  The district is also lobbying for increased funding from the state.”

For The Intercept, Leighton Akio Woodhouse reports on the fiscal condition of Oakland’s public schools: “The Oakland Unified School District is in a fiscal crisis. The school board has halted construction projects and is planning to cut over 100 central administrative jobs, impose across-the-board cuts to all of its schools and close two dozen schools over five years in a desperate scramble to forestall a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-2020 school year. The impact of the deficit at the classroom level is most apparent in the Oakland school district’s sky-high teacher turnover rate. Oakland teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Bay Area, and 1 in 5 of them leave the district annually, compared to just over 1 in 10 statewide.”

Political economist Gordon Lafer conducted a major study last spring on the devastating impact of charter schools on California’s public 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.”

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are not required to provide services for to meet the needs of every child.  Woodhouse describes his own interview with Lafer about the specific crisis in Oakland: “It’s extraordinarily easy to open a charter school in California. ‘Anybody minimally legally and financially compliant cannot be stopped from opening a school,’ said Lafer, who has studied the growth of charters in the state. By law, school districts cannot deny a petition to open a charter school unless its educational program is unsound or it is ‘demonstrably likely’ to fail at its educational mission. According to Lafer’s research, the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland costs the school district $57.3 million per year, yet the district cannot take into account the impact a new charter will have on the finances of existing schools when deciding on an application.”  Lafer summarizes the impact: “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”

And, explains Woodhouse, California’s formula for educating students with special education needs is ineffective: “The disparity is particularly pronounced with special needs students. In California, funding for special education is based on the overall student population, not on the percentage of special needs students a school enrolls. By enrolling fewer special needs students, charter schools are able to receive funding for services they do not provide, which public schools’ efforts are underfunded.”

After the recent strike by 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles, California Governor Gavin Newsom asked the state school superintendent to undertake a major study of the impact of charter schools on their host school districts.  Edource‘s Louis Freedberg and Mikhail Zinshteyn report: “Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to establish a panel of experts to examine the impact of charter school growth on district finances… The issue was a concern of Newsom’s even before the L.A. teachers strike, said Newsom spokesperson Brian Feguson. ‘As Governor Newsom stated in his first budget proposal, rising charter school enrollments in some urban districts are having real impacts on those districts’ ability to provide essential support and services for their students,’ he said.  Under a 1998 state law, districts are not allowed to take into account the financial impact of a charter school on a district in deciding whether or not to grant them a charter. ”

Underneath all this, of course, is the devastating and lingering impact of California’s property tax freeze, the 1978 Proposition 13.

And, as Woodhouse reminds us, “In recent years, the charter school industry and its supporters have dumped huge sums of money into elections in California in an aggressive bid to expand its presence in public school districts throughout the state… Oakland in particular seems to hold special significance for charter school boosters. The city has drawn a deluge of money from pro-charter billionaires that is rare to see in municipal elections. Last year, Michael Bloomberg donated $120,000 to an independent expenditure committee connected with GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that organizes and advocates on behalf of charter school expansion, which went on to drop more than $150,000 on a single 2018 Oakland school board race. The investments have paid dividends. Out of the seven seats on the Oakland school district’s board, five are occupied by GO Public Schools-endorsed candidates.”

Are Charter Schools Losing their Cachet? Is the Narrative Shifting?

There is a swell of reaction against “corporate school reform.” It can’t be called a tsunami, but the wave is significant enough that people are paying attention.  Thanks to a year of strikes by public schoolteachers, for example, people seem suddenly more aware that the expansion of charter schools has left urban school districts with all sorts of collateral damage.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noted: “This country is nearly 30 years into an experiment with charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. Supporters first described charters as competitive vehicles to push traditional public schools to reform. Over time, that narrative changed and charters were wrapped into the zeitgeist of ‘choice’ for families whose children wanted alternatives to troubled district schools.”

Strauss continues: “Today, about 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them.  Some states have only a few charters while some cities are saturated.  In Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend charters.  In New York, it’s 10 percent.  Charter backers say the movement is an important and sustainable feature of America’s educational landscape and any problems it faces are expected growing pains. Yet the movement, which has enjoyed Republican and Democratic support—including hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration—seems to be at an inflection point as supporters and detractors recognize that charters are not the panacea backers had long suggested… What looks like a backlash against charters has been several years in the making.”

Recently, as part of the agreement to end the strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers, not only did the district agree to smaller classes and more support staff, but it also agreed to another demand: that the district’s school board pass a resolution pressing the state legislature for an 8-10-month moratorium on new charter schools and co-locations of charter schools into public school buildings until the legislature conducts a study of the impact on public school districts of the expansion of charter schools. Although newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom has not taken a position on the proposed moratorium on charter schools, he asked Tony Thurmond, the recently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene an expert panel to examine the impact of the charter sector across the state.  Newsom wants the panel to report by July 1.

Even in his news report on the Governor’s request for a panel, however, the Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume alludes to one problem with California’s charter school law.  Local school districts have no control at all over the growth or location of charter schools. Within the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LA school board cannot impose the kind of moratorium its members requested from the state while the study is ongoing: “LA. Unified has no authority to enforce a moratorium, which would require a change to state law. The L.A. school board, like others in the state, is required to approve any valid petition to start a charter school that comes before it.”

Strauss describes signs that, well beyond Los Angeles, widespread support for charters may be fading. In New York City, where charter schools were rapidly expanded under mayoral governance during Michael Bloomberg’s term from 2001-2013, the newest NYC Chancellor, Richard Carranza has been more critical of charter supporters when they disparage the traditional public schools. In his CURMUDGUCATION blog on Tuesday, Peter Greene noted that Community Education Councils of NYC, a group of 36 parent councils across the 1.1 million-student school district, have through their Education Council Consortium formally proposed a five-year moratorium on new charter schools in NYC along with a system-wide impact evaluation of NYC charter schools.

Strauss reminds us that in Chicago: “(Mayor) Rahm Emanuel surprised the city when he said he would not run for a third time even though there was no heir apparent.  One of the reasons that commentators said contributed to his decision was the growing unpopularity in Chicago of his education policies, which included closing some 50 traditional public schools, affecting mostly African American students, and his embrace of charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has been tracking problems in charter schools and problems caused more broadly by charter schools for years. In the introduction to a 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, NPE executive director, Carol Burris describes the widespread absence of regulation and accountability in the state laws that establish and supposedly oversee charter schools: “There are national chains that are corporately managed and ‘mom and pop’ charters. There is instability as charters open and close. About 1 in 5 charters are for-profit.  Some have a real estate arm that buys buildings then rents them to their own schools at exorbitant rates.  Still others are not-for-profit fronts that are managed by for-profit corporations. Some charters are brick and mortar, others are located in storefronts and still others are cyber or virtual schools… Many boards are populated by billionaires who enjoy isolated lives of wealth far from the poor, urban communities that their ‘no-excuses’ charters serve… Despite the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars that has resulted from lack of regulation, America’s billionaires—from Betsy DeVos to Eli Broad and Bill Gates—have spurred charter growth.  Sometimes they flood pro-charter ballot initiatives or political campaigns with their cash. They fund state and national charter and choice lobbying organizations they help create. Politicians from both parties, eager to receive their contributions, are more than willing to comply with both legislation and funding.”

Besides states’ weak regulation of their charter schools, however, it is also becoming increasingly understood that maintaining separate and unrelated systems of schools—all paid for from the education budgets that were stretched thin even before charters were established—is economically untenable.  In Los Angeles, striking teachers highlighted a May, 2018, report by political economist Gordon Lafer on the economics of California charter schools:  “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District.”

Lafer explains what most people don’t understand about their public school district: “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.”

Lafer details the costs public school districts cannot immediately cut when students leave for charter schools: “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 Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker examined the same fiscal issues around the expansion of charter schools in a November, 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  In a new column, Jeff Bryant interviews Baker about the dire consequences of charter school expansion in any fixed geographic space like a school district: “It’s about the fact that kids are shifting to charters, and money for district schools is declining at a pace whereby the district cannot possibly immediately, efficiently adjust its budget and use of space… It’s just inefficient… Running two systems in a common space is just less efficient and more expensive than running one.. The ongoing inefficiency of charters is baked into having uncontrollable mobility between two independent systems operating in a common space.”

We’ll Have to Reduce Test-and-Punish. Talking about Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough

Silly me!  I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that SEL is a thing.  SEL is a new term in educational circles: Social Emotional Learning.  I heard Linda Darling-Hammond—Stanford University emeritus professor, CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and chair of an Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development—present the work of the commission, and then I started reading more about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

It would appear that many of the educational academics promoting SEL are doing so as an effort to shift our schools’ focus away from the incessant drilling on basic language arts and math that has been driven by the high-stakes testing embedded in the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB and Race to the Top, that compounded NCLB’s punitive grasp on our public schools, have created fear-driven pressure to raise scores at any cost. The stakes are high: Schools have been closed or charterized, teachers fired or their salaries cut, and school districts trapped in state takeover.  And worse—in terms of the social and emotional health of children—students whose reading scores are too low at the end of third grade have been retained in grade for an extra remedial year.

The Learning Policy Institute has been intent about trying to help state education departments take advantage of the way the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tweaks accountability.  ESSA eliminates direct federal punishments for low test scores by turning accountability over to states, but it says states must have their own plans to hold public schools accountable.  Beyond the required reporting of test scores and graduation rates, states can now add new factors, as long as the new factors are research-based. For example, the Learning Policy Institute has been explaining how research backs up the establishment of wraparound Community Schools.  Its publications have shown states how to demonstrate through research that Community Schools are a worthy of inclusion in states’ dashboards of factors by which schools can be judged and held accountable.

Now, it would appear that Darling-Hammond’s support of Social Emotional Learning, through her leadership on the Aspen SEL Commission, is an attempt to help states position SEL as a factor in their Every Student Succeeds dashboards by which schools can be held accountable.  In Education Week a year ago after Aspen released coverage of its new SEL Commission, Evie Blad reported: “The new federal education law requires schools to report new factors, like chronic absenteeism rates, in their public report cards, and it requires states to broaden how they measure school success.  No state decided to include direct measures of social-emotional learning in its accountability system.  Most cited cautions from researchers who’ve said existing measures are not sophisticated enough to be used for high-stakes purposes.  But mindfulness of students’ emotions, relationships, and development can help schools show improvement in other areas covered by the law, like attendance and achievement commissioners said.”  The Aspen Commission, we should assume, hopes its new report will beef up the research base on SEL.

I suppose it s worth establishing a research base to support education of the whole child if in some way measuring SEL will help states be more humane in evaluating what is being accomplished at school.  However, it is also essential to remember that the Every Student Succeeds Act makes two other factors primary in the states’ ESSA accountability reports: standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.  I wonder if inserting Social Emotional Learning right on top of test-and-punish doesn’t merely represent a contradiction in strategies. And figuring out metrics by which a state can judge how a district is doing at SEL and then holding schools accountable for SEL in the state’s accountability system seems bizarre.

Some of the puzzling language in the Aspen Institute Commission’s report is about showing states and school districts how to measure SEL so that it will count for school accountability: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than rewards and sanctions.”  So far the advice seems pretty positive compared to what we’re doing now which is focusing on rewards and sanctions. But the report later vaguely suggests some kind of measurable outcomes: “Use a broader range of assessments and other demonstrations of learning that capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills… Use data to identify and address gaps in students’ access to the full range of learning opportunities in and out of school.”

Recently in his personal blog, the writer and education professor at UCLA, Mike Rose raised concerns about Social Emotional Learning: “(D)o we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matter?… More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion.”

Rose harks back to a piece he wrote in 2013 in which he worried that, “Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics.  And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models….”  Rose worries about dividing education into a “cognitive/non-cognitive binary.”  “The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity.  If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, non-cognitive.  We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.”

For Rose, social and emotional work must be an essential part of every teacher’s daily practice—and something children learn in their experience of schooling. In an excellent 2014 article published by The American Scholar, Rose describes the characteristics of the best classrooms he visited on a journey across the United States to research his fine book, Possible Lives: “For all the variation… the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration.  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Respect also has a cognitive dimension.  As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’  Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed.  Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing.  These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility… (O)verall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

The people who are trying to make Social Emotional Learning part of states’ Every Student Succeeds accountability dashboards undoubtedly have good intentions. They are trying, once again to make normal child development and attention to the needs of the whole child primary goals in America’s public school classrooms.  Unfortunately, however, because standardized test scores and high school graduation rates—both highly measurable data sets—remain at the very center of ESSA’s federal demand for school accountability, Social Emotional Learning will always be on the side.

To improve the social and emotional climate in our schools today, we’ll need do go after what is really the problem—what Harvard’s Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade.”

The Difficulty of Cleaning Arne Duncan’s Awful Policies Out of the Laws of 50 States

Sometimes I find myself considering how our society arrived in 2019 at what striking schoolteachers this year have been demonstrating is an existential crisis for our system of public education.

Partly, of course, Betsy DeVos, our current Education Secretary, and all her friends including the Koch brothers have been working for years to substitute privatized, marketplace school choice for what many of us prize as our universal system of public schools. The idea of public education is a network of schools in every American community, schools that are publicly owned, regulated by law, and operated by locally elected school boards. Our society’s promise, an ideal we have increasingly realized through a history of making the dream accessible to more and more children, is that the public schools will meet all children’s needs and protect their rights.  Supreme Court cases and civil rights laws have expanded protection for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, no matter their immigration status. The law protects services for children whose primary language may be other than English, for children who are disabled, and for children whatever their gender or sexual orientation.

But even with all her money, added to the money of her friends, and with the help of billionaire philanthropists who have served as her allies, Betsy DeVos isn’t powerful enough to have so thoroughly upended public education. We were all complicit somehow, although we didn’t collectively realize it, despite that many of us have been protesting along the way.

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

More recently, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have described how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan consensus about taxation and the role of government beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

Over the past quarter century, test-based school accountability and school privatization have quietly become fixtures of the bipartisan conventional wisdom about education. This year, striking public school teachers across the states have challenged the conventional wisdom by reinforcing, to use Hacker and Pierson’s words, “alternative understandings which have no longer been voiced confidently” to demand that we value the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

No Child Left Behind, the 2002, omnibus federal education law, set up a scheme to judge schools by standardized test scores and punish low-scoring public schools until they improved their students’ scores. The scheme pretty much ignored resource inputs like equitable distribution of school funding, and it also ignored what has since then been repeatedly reconfirmed: that test scores are extremely highly correlated with children’s circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty and segregation are central factors that the conventional wisdom glossed over.

This year striking schoolteachers have, for many of us at least, created a new receptivity to the facts.  Teachers have created a new context in which Nathan Robinson’s recent analysis in Current Affairs resonates in a new way.  This blog covered Robinson’s piece last week, but it is worth considering again.  Robinson specifically dissects Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s plan, embodied in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, but Race to the Top merely magnified and intensified the strategy and specific details of No Child Left Behind, except that Race to the Top added another business strategy: competition.

Robinson explains that Race to the Top “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.'”  The four turnarounds (originally defined in No Child Left Behind) were firing principals and teachers in so-called “failing” schools, closing these schools, or turning them into privately operated charter schools, or turning them over to an education management organization.

Looking back, Robinson wonders how our people permitted this to happen: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since ‘historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’… Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they need to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved. The focus on ‘innovation,’ data, and technology is misguided, too.  Innovation is not necessarily improvement… When it came time, in 2016, to assess what Race to the Top had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that ‘a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by Race to the Top provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes’….”

In one way, however, Arne Duncan was an extremely savvy politician. His Race to the Top competition magnified the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind in 50 different ways and set them in concrete by bribing the 50 state legislatures to enact these policies into their own laws.  By dangling Race to the Top money in front of state legislatures in 2009 at the height of a recession, Duncan made it hard for state legislatures to resist temptation.  The result is that today, while Arne Duncan has left government to promote social entrepreneurship and work for a Chicago project of Lorene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, the educational policies of Race to the Top have been cast into the concrete of state laws, or at least buried in the statehouse sludge where nobody can remember them or identify them or pull them out.  And they have seeped into the conventional wisdom.

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

In No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style, Ohio continues to identify so-called “failing” schools.  My state continues to use aggregate student test scores as the basis of a branding system that assigns schools letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.  And it publicly ranks our public schools and school districts from best to worst based on standardized test scores.

When a public school is branded with an F, the old school turnaround strategies from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—requirements that have now been dropped at the federal level—continue to apply in Ohio.  The students in the so-called “failing” schools can secure an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child. Ohio also permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts.

The number of these vouchers and privatized charter schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

Ohio uses state takeover rather than school closure as the punishment when a school district has been rated F for three consecutive years. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.

In Race to the Top and later in his No Child Left Behind Waivers program, Arne Duncan demanded that states commit to evaluating teachers based on the Value Added that could, supposedly, be identified in their students’ standardized test scores. Ohio complied enthusiastically with Duncan’s teacher evaluation policies by making 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized test scores of the teacher’s students.  Then, finally, after the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both condemned as unreliable the use of Value Added Measures for evaluating teachers, Congress ended the policy.  In the new federal education law, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress removed the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of the evaluation of teachers. Only in the summer of 2018, however, did Ohio finally amend its Duncan-driven policy for teachers’ evaluations. Finally the Legislature folded the use of test scores into a more complex evaluation that, lawmakers said, tracks how teachers are using test score data to inform their instruction. The new system won’t be implemented until the 2020-2021 academic year, however, and it still incorporates students’ test scores in a vague way. Today in 2019, Ohio still makes 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ standardized test scores.

In Ohio, No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style punishment, not assistance, remains the strategy for the schools in our poorest communities. All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

A growing consensus that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were misguided in their obsessive use of high stakes standardized tests is widely documented in the research literature. The biggest problem is that these policies targeted the public schools in the nation’s poorest communities for punishment.  In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, a testing expert at Harvard University, explains how test-and-punish works: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do…  Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

From West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to Los Angeles, schoolteachers have been striking all year to show us how all this has gone wrong—robbing their schools of essential programs and staff.  I hope these people who know the conditions in their schools better than the rest of us will continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top Era.

A big problem is that Arne Duncan induced state legislatures to embed his favorite ideas into the laws of the 50 states. It isn’t going to be so easy to get them cleaned out.

Denver Strike: Teachers Protest Low Pay and “Corporate Reform” Innovations that Didn’t Work

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association went on strike yesterday against the Denver Public Schools over low pay and what has become a failed experiment in merit pay bonuses.  Schoolteachers want the district to scrap its ProComp incentive pay system, which was put in place in 2006 when teachers agreed to the plan—a fixture of then-Superintendent Michael Bennet’s corporate school reformer agenda.  Bennet now a U.S. Senator, served as Denver’s school-reformer superintendent from 2005 until 2009. He was the mayor’s chief of staff and formerly an investment banker who lacked any experience in education.

Denver’s teachers’ strike is the latest in a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. This time, however, an added issue is a twelve-year experiment with corporate reformer innovation in the form of a bonus pay system supposedly to incentivize teachers to work harder and smarter. Today teachers claim the innovation didn’t work, because too much money went into bonuses at the expense of base pay.

For the NY Times, Julie Turkewitz and Dana Goldstein explain why Denver’s teachers are striking: “Pay-for-performance models like Denver’s offer teachers bonuses for raising student achievement and for taking on tougher assignments, such as in schools with many students from low-income families.”  Denver teachers, write Turkewitz and Goldstein, “say this model-once hailed as a way to motivate teachers—has delivered erratic bonuses while their base salaries stagnate amid rising living costs… The foundational principle of Pro-Comp—evaluating teachers according to how well their students perform—was later enshrined in Colorado law and then in Race to the Top…. But such evaluation models typically required more testing of students in order to gather evidence of teacher impact…. Since 2016, federal and state laws have shifted districts away from using student performance to judge teachers. In many ways, ProComp is now seen as a relic of an earlier era of school reform.”

The Denver Post‘s Elizabeth Hernandez reports that the school district’s negotiators agreed to save money by phasing out the jobs of central office administrators, but the school district’s proposal invests the money into increases in the Pro-Comp incentive system instead of raising base pay.  The teachers union rejected the proposal.

Denver’s teachers have pointed out that the ProComp bonus incentives are unstable, shifting each year according, for example, to the percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch in any school—a figure which shifts as families relocate.  Turkewitz and Goldstein explain: “Denver teachers and their union leaders argue that it is more important to raise teachers’ base pay than to offer them modest and unpredictable bonuses. In a city surging with new money from the technology, aerospace and marijuana industries, teachers say they are struggling to pay off student loans and cannot afford rent, much less buy a home… The average Denver teacher earns $63,400 per year, including any ProComp bonuses.  The union wants more money to go to base salaries, in part by reducing a proposed $4,500 bonus for teachers in high-poverty schools, and eliminating a proposed $3,000 incentive for teachers in the district’s 30 highest-priority schools.”

Chalkbeat reprinted a letter from several Denver teachers explaining why, even though they serve in “hard to serve” schools, they want to reject ProComp: ” It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working.  We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment.  Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers…  The current bonuses let the district off the hook… We know that increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools.  Increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs.  It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.”

There are also deeper structural problems.  Denver’s economy is surging and driving up the cost of living, but its tax laws have kept overall school funding low. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that Colorado remains the only state with a TABOR—a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, “a constitutional measure that limits the annual growth in state (and sometimes local) revenues or spending to the sum of the annual inflation rate and the annual percentage change in the state’s population. (For example, if the general inflation rate is 2 percent and the state’s population grows by 1 percent, state revenue available for expenditures can increase by 3 percent. The balance must be refunded to taxpayers.) Overriding these limits requires voters’ approval or some other high bar, such as a supermajority vote of the legislature.” “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort. TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

In its newest 2017 study of school funding across the states, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported Colorado’s total state and local funding for K-12 public education to be 4 percent below what was being invested in education in 2008 before the Great Recession (in inflation-adjusted terms).

More to the point in terms of teachers’ salaries, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel point out that Colorado’s teacher pay penalty is fourth worst in the country. Colorado teachers’ salaries are 35.1 percent lower than the salaries of other college graduates. The only states with a bigger gap between teachers’ pay and and the pay for other comparably educated professionals are Arizona, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Turkewitz and Goldstein blame Colorado’s failure adequately to fund its schools for much of the problem teachers are protesting in Denver: “Underlying the battle in Denver is the fact that school funding in Colorado was about $2,000 below the national average per-student in 2016.  The state requires all tax increases to be approved directly by referendum, and during the midterm elections this past November, voters rejected an initiative to raise money for schools by increasing corporate taxes and personal income taxes on those earning over $150,000.”