School Finance Experts Raise Concerns about Legislature’s Phase-In of Ohio’s Fair School Funding Plan

Howard Fleeter and R. Gregory Browning recently conducted a new, preliminary study of the funding of Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) under the state’s Fair School Funding Plan. The new plan was passed two years ago as part of the FY 2022-2023 state budget to be phased in over six years—three biennial budget cycles. Although Fleeter and Browning’s new report describes what the the state calls a Fair School Funding Plan, they show why the fairness of the plan has already become corrupted.  Sadly the plan’s implementation is coming to epitomize the old, old joke about school finance: “School funding is like a Russian novel: it’s long, and it’s boring, and in the end, everybody gets killed.”

In the case of Ohio, according to Fleeter and Browning’s December 2022 report, the school districts that get hurt the most are the ones serving a lot of the state’s poorest children. For thirty years, economist Howard Fleeter has been Ohio’s school finance guru—the person who understands better than anyone else the arcane complexities of the state’s system for funding its 610 public school districts.  Last Thursday, the Ohio Capital Journal’s Susan Tebben provided a copy for the general public of Fleeter and Browning’s recent report, which she describes as “an effort to show the state legislature some of the needs of the state education system.”

Fleeter and Browning explain their purpose in the report’s first sentence: “to help Ohio educators and public policymakers gain a deeper understanding of the specific supplemental services being provided to Ohio public primary and secondary school students who come from economically disadvantaged circumstances. The report also includes a preliminary analysis of the costs associated with providing these services.”  In fact, the new report focuses on the funding for the services, not the services themselves.

How much more funding from federal, state, and local sources does a school district need if a large number of poor students are enrolled in its public schools? Fleeter and Browning accept findings from three 2004 and 2007 economic studies which “demonstrate that a 30% multiplier for districts with high concentrations of students in poverty is on the low end of the marginal cost shown by educational research.” In other words, a district serving a lot of poor children needs at least 30 percent more per pupil funds to provide the services those children need at school. Necessary services include: “district-provided preschool programming and primary grade reading intervention… supplemental supports such as after-school programming, summer school and high school credit recovery;… and health and wellness supports, including school counselors and nurses, school-based health clinics and in-house behavioral health services.”

Fleeter and Browning examine the needs of three representative Ohio school districts—one urban, one rural, and another suburban. They conclude that, “the districts, in large part, provided the same array of supplemental services to their respective populations of economically disadvantaged students… Ohio’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) program and the federal Title I program remain the pillars of funding for supplemental services for economically disadvantaged students. These sources have been in place for many years and are the only funding sources that are specifically and exclusively intended to finance these services on an ongoing basis.”

However, Fleeter and Browning report that the three school districts have also been using a significant amount of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support services for children living in poverty.  ESSER funds were awarded by the federal government to mitigate the problems from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But there is a problem: ESSER funds were a one-time grant; they are not an ongoing funding source. “Clearly, for each district, DPIA and/or Title I funding would have to be dramatically increased to replace one-time ESSER federal stimulus related funding that is currently being used to help pay for roughly 30% of supplemental service in each of the three districts... And in each case (school) leaders… believe that the identified low-inome students’ needs were largely, if not entirely in existence prior to the 2020 beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are needs that will be continuing past the pandemic and into the foreseeable future.” (emphasis in the original)

In the second paragraph of their report, Fleeter and Browning provide what they call the context for their concerns as we enter 2023, when the governor and the legislature are required to come up with a new FY 2024-2025 biennial budget. Early in the report we get the following hint about why this is all going to be like the long, sad Russian novel from the old joke:

“Ohio’s current school funding policies are rooted in the Ohio Fair School Funding Plan, which is being phased in over a six-year period beginning in FY 22. The plan is a new, inputs-based approach to funding primary and secondary education. It includes a new methodology for providing supplemental funding for the additional costs of providing needed educational services to economically disadvantaged students. This funding comes through the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) component of the state’s school funding formula. Importantly, the phase-in of the new funding formula does not treat all components of the formula uniformly, as DPIA is phased in at a slower rate than the other funding components, nor does it provide a clearly articulated, evidence-based approach to funding DPIA. Lastly, there is no legal requirement that the new state funding formula be phased in fully in future years.”

Later in the report Fleeter and Browning detail some of the serious problems with the legislature’s calculation of the amount of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid and with the program’s implementation:

  • The state was supposed to provide an in-depth, cost-based study of the services needed to help very poor children thrive at school. But the state has neither funded such a study nor conducted it.
  • The Fair School Funding Plan is supposed to be cost-based, but the state came up with phasing in an additional $422 per pupil for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid on the cheap—without considering what school districts actually must spend: “(T)he mathematics behind the $422 per pupil figure are based on a 30% increase over the prior $6,020 per pupil base cost amount for non-disadvantaged students.  Under Ohio’s new state aid formula, the state average base cost—which is intended to reflect the cost of educating the ‘typical student in the typical school district’ is $7,349.  30% of this figure is $2,205, a nearly $400 increase over the $1,806 per pupil from which the $422 per pupil base DPIA figure is derived.” (emphasis in the original)
  • Under the Fair School Funding Plan, the state has promised to support school districts serving poor children with added Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, but is phasing in increases for DPIA at a slower rate than the phase-in of the rest of the plan. “There was zero increase in DPIA funding in FY 22 and only a 14% phase-in in FY 23.  All other components of the formula were phased in at a 16.67% rate in FY 22 and a 33.33% rate in FY 23.” Doesn’t it make sense to phase in DPIA at the same rate as the phase-in of the rest of the plan?
  • The overall amount of funds allocated over the years to Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid has lagged at the same time the number of poor students who need the services has grown considerably: “(F)rom 2001 through 2021 total state aid for economically disadvantaged students has increased by 23.3%… while the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased by 57.5%….”

Finally, Fleeter and Browning name a serious threat to the future of the entire Fair School Funding Plan. The legislature funded the phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan only for the first two years of the scheduled six year phase-in. The Plan was passed as part of the last biennial budget; it has never been established by stand-alone legislation. Two years ago, legislators left themselves the option of abandoning the funding of the plan after the end of the FY 2022-2023 biennium. In other words, their commitment to the plan may be winding down to its conclusion now before the new budget cycle begins on July 1, 2023.

It will be urgently important for advocates to demand that the Fair School Funding Plan survives in the FY 2024-FY2025 state budget, and that the full phase-in of this year’s promise—2/3 of the six year phase-in of the full plan—be part of the new biennial budget.  Additionally there must be a correction to ensure the full and timely phase-in of funding for Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid.

What Does It Mean for Our Children and Our Society that State Legislators Don’t Know What Teachers Do?

Political attacks on teachers seem to be everywhere. Fanatical critics charge that teachers destroy white children’s self esteem by honestly acknowledging racism, and worse, they accuse teachers of “grooming” children. Public schoolteachers are the collateral damage in a widespread political campaign to discredit public schooling and promote privatization. As the new year begins, I have been grateful to prominent news commentators for calling out the scapegoating of schoolteachers.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s retired editorial page director, Brent Larkin devoted a weekly column to exploring what’s been happening in Ohio politics: “A large number of odious types in elected life are so obsessed with demonizing public schoolteachers that it interferes with these legislators’ ability to deal with real problems.” Larkin quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association: “When you have people deliberately fostering distrust, it has a devastating impact on educator morale… There are just so many challenges in terms of inequity of resources, discipline, poverty and culture-war attacks that have been very deliberately orchestrated by people on the right.'” Larkin concludes: “Great teachers are to be treasured. The way they’re treated speaks volumes about where we’re headed.”

The Washington Post‘s culture critic, Robin Givhan wonders: “Who will remain when educators tire of picking their way through a political obstacle course of ginned-up outrage over bathrooms and manufactured controversies about racial justice?… Who will educate children when teachers finally become fed up with dodging bullets—or taking bullets—in service to someone else’s child?… It’s no secret that they’re underpaid for all the duties they perform… The United States has lost 370,000 teachers since the start of the pandemic… Critics have been punishing a them from all sides. The country asks public school teachers to carry this nation’s future on their backs, and then we force them to walk through a field of land mines.”

John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour recently wrote: “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight… However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59% of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute… Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation… and according to Education Week, ‘Teachers are also working under a ‘pay penalty,’ an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers…'”

Data confirm Merrow’s concerns. In last summer’s most recent report from the Economic Policy Institute on the need to raise teachers’ salaries, Sylvia Allegretto reported the serious and growing disparity in the wages for teachers and other comparably educated college graduates: “Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers have been relatively flat since 1996. The average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted only for inflation) increased just $29 from 1996 to 2021, from $1,319 to $1,348 (in 2021 dollars). In contrast, inflation-adjusted  weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,564 to $2,009 over the same period—a $445 increase.”

Bloomberg adds that one consequence of low pay on top of a barrage of controversy about what and how teachers teach is the growing shortage of teachers: “Overall, the U.S. job market ended 2022 at a near record for growth but one area in particular underscores how some parts of the economy still lag far behind pre-pandemic levels… The slow crawl is largely due to one industry—education—making up more than half of the jobs lost… (T)here has been a mass exodus of educators, leaving school districts with mounting vacancies to fill.”

There is clearly a tragic disconnect between the needs of America’s public schools and the resources legislators across the states are providing. Why? Part of the cause, of course, is the ideologically driven campaign the news commentators have noticed. Far right groups like the Bradley Foundation, EdChoice, Americans for Prosperity and the Goldwater Institute are pursuing a lavishly funded lobbying campaign—with model laws written and distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—to encourage legislators to privatize the whole educational enterprise.

Something else, however, has made our legislators increasingly susceptible to the ideology of the lobbyists and school privatizers. For several hours in December, as I watched a televised hearing of the Ohio House Education Committee, I was struck by so many lawmakers who seemed to define the role of teachers as mechanical producers of standardized test scores—and who conceptualize schools as merely an assembly line turning out workers who will help attract business and manufacturing to Ohio. I listened to a conversation filled with standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by numbers. The only time human beings appeared in the discussion of education was when legislators blamed teachers for the numbers. It is not surprising that the same Ohio legislators are trying to transform the Ohio Department of Education into a new Department of Education and the Workforce.

In Ohio and across every state, aggregate standardized test scores dropped during the school closures and remote learning during COVID-19, but as I watched the televised hearing, the legislators seemed furious that teachers had not quickly come up with a different set of test-score production methods and turned the scores around. They seemed to believe that teachers should have been able to erase students’ emotional struggles during the return to schooling after COVID disruptions. Several declared that putting the governor in charge of education would take care of the problem and make teachers accountable.

As I watched the hearing, I realized again something that I already knew: Many of the people who make public education policy at the state level don’t know what teachers do. Few people on that committee seemed to grasp that teaching school is a complex and difficult job.

Watching the members of the Ohio House of Representatives discuss their concerns about our public schools made me think about David Berliner’s description of teaching. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at Teachers College and Stanford University. Berliner comments on the human complexity of teaching as he contrasts the work of teachers and doctors:

“A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously. Many of these students don’t speak English well. Typically anywhere from 5-15% will show emotional and/or cognitive disabilities. Most are poor, and many reside in single parent families… Many patients seek out their physicians, choosing to be in their office. On the other hand, many students seek to be out-of-class…. I always wonder how physicians would fare if 30 or so kids… showed up for medical treatment all at once, and then left 50 minutes later, healed or not!  And suppose this chaotic scene was immediately followed by thirty or more different kids… also in need of personal attention. And they too stayed about 50 minutes…. Imagine waves of these patients hitting a physicians’ office five or six times a day!”

Berliner continues: “(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.  Another researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day. Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings. In fact, it takes about 10 years for teachers to hit their maximum ability….”

Watching our legislators also made me think about the late Mike Rose’s definition of good teaching.   Rose taught college students how to teach and he spent a good part of his career visiting classes to observe and document what excellent teachers do. Rose’s very best book, Possible Lives, is the story of his observations of excellent teaching as he spent three years observing public school classrooms across the United States: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. 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…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall 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.”

I wish the people who make the laws which allocate and distribute state funding for public schools, were required to spend one day every year visiting a public school to watch what teachers do. In fact, I wish every state legislator were required to undertake the challenge of teaching in a public elementary, middle or high school for at least half of one school day every year.

One of the most important jobs of state legislators—and a job most of them have failed to fulfill—is to adequately fund the public schools, which every state constitution promises the state will provide. It is the responsibility of state legislators to support teachers by providing enough resources to pay teachers fairly for their work and to make classes small enough that teachers can know and support each student.

After Bill to Eviscerate Ohio State Board of Education Fails in December, Same Bill Is Reintroduced as SB1 in New Legislative Session

The powerful, supermajority Republican Ohio Senate is rushing to attack public education as the 135th Ohio General Assembly convenes this month.

The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Jo Ingles explains: “A bill to take power away from elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education has been reintroduced after falling short in the Ohio General Assembly last year.”  You will remember that the bill the Senate tried to pass at the end of the legislative session was a 2,144 page Senate Bill 178 to disempower the state school board, a bill which then got combined with a bill to ban transgender girls from high school sports and another to ban any requirement by school districts that their students be vaccinated for COVID-19.  The huge package containing SB 178 failed in the last hours of the lame duck session.

Now Senator Bill Reineke has introduced, as Senate Bill 1 in the 135th Ohio General Assembly, the same provisions to hollow out Ohio’s State Board of Education and move most of the State Board’s primary functions into a new cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the governor.

State Senator Andy Brenner (R.-Delaware), the Chair of the Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, is the Ohio Legislature’s ex officio, non-voting representative to the Ohio State Board of Education.

Ingles reports that last week Brenner informed members of the Ohio State Board of Education about the bill that has been reintroduced: “(T)he bill is a priority and is the first one to be introduced in that chamber. ‘Senate Bill 1 will put basically the governor in charge.’ Brenner said.”

Ingles explains: “That’s something Ohio governors have wanted for decades but the intensity for advancing a bill to do this was amplified after the November election when three new members, all backed by teachers’ unions, were elected to the board. This bill will create a position, accountable to the governor, that will oversee much of the educational policy now being handled by the state board… Brenner said this bill is needed because the state school board is not effective in some areas.”

Brenner also believes that handing power to the governor would make schools more accountable. Ingles quotes him attacking the State Board of Education because during COVID-19, test scores dropped precipitously in two of Ohio’s school districts serving concentrations of the state’s very poorest children: “I think it is embarrassing when the passage rate in East Cleveland this past year was 2.1% in 8th grade math and low-single-digits in Youngstown—this board should be pounding on the department to get that fixed and those local districts.”

The Plain Dealer’s Laura Hancock describes State Board Member Meryl Johnson’s response to Brenner’s attack on local school districts. Johnson’s state board district has included many of the school districts in metropolitan Cleveland. Meryl Johnson is a very involved, hands-on representative of the school districts she has been serving, and she knows how COVID-19 affected families in her district. Johnson responded to Brenner’s attack on the East Cleveland City Schools by reminding Senator Brenner about something he must somehow have missed or forgotten: the East Cleveland school district was taken over by the state in 2018 (under HB 70), and it has been managed since then under a state appointed Academic Distress Commission. When law makers realized that Academic Distress Commissions had not raised aggregate test scores in any of the five districts taken over by the state, the Legislature created a path for school districts to work their way out of state oversight.  East Cleveland’s plan to work its way out of state oversight was approved a year ago.

At last week’s state board meeting, Meryl Johnson reminded Senator Brenner: “There was a state takeover, academic distress, and we didn’t see that doing a whole lot… I know that in East Cleveland, their teachers work hard. I’ve talked to them. I go in there. So I’m just concerned that you continue to raise that as an example. How would SB 1 help East Cleveland do better?”

Teresa Fedor, just retired at the end of December as a term-limited Democrat who has served in the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House, won a seat on the Ohio State Board of Education in the November election.  Fedor opposes Senate Bill 1 to gut the State Board of Education as an obvious power grab by an out-of-control Republican supermajority in today’s Ohio Legislature.  The Statehouse NewsJo Ingles reports: “Fedor opposed the bill then—and she opposes it now.”

Fedor explained her concerns about the new SB 1 to Ingles after Senator Brenner’s presentation last week to the State Board: “This is a ruse to take over public education and hand it over to their friends; then corruption begins… It’s clearly a power grab that will silence the voice of the people and local control… Republicans—we know—can’t be trusted. All we have to do is look at ECOT and 25 years of not funding (public) schools constitutionally… Let’s take a look at the last, I don’t know, 26 years. Who has been in charge? The Republicans. It’s their (state) board. They take direction mainly from the governor. And, in fact, those appointed board members are afraid to make decisions in a bold way because they’ve got to check in with their boss.”

Fedor is an experienced politician; what follows is a quick summary of the political manipulation she watched during her long tenure in the legislature.

The most recent episode is summarized in a December 9, 2022 Plain Dealer editorial: “A curious thing happened on Nov. 8 (2022).  Amid a stampede of Republican victories in Ohio, voters in state education board districts ousted two GOP incumbents in favor of Democrats and elected another Democrat in a contested district previously held by a Republican. While the races were officially nonpartisan, the outcome gave board members who’d campaigned to take culture-war issues off the table at the State Board of Education a much larger voice… In response to this clear expression of voter concern that the State Board of Education needed to refocus on the nuts and bolts of educating Ohio children, a substitute bill gutting the board and transferring most of its key powers to an extensively revamped state education bureaucracy emerged in the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee.”

There have been problems in Ohio’s State Board in recent decades after the legislature granted the governor 8 appointed seats out of a state board of 19 members. Most of these problems are themselves the result of political meddling by powerful Ohio Republican leaders. For example, after the State Board passed an anti-racism resolution in 2020, and then in 2021 rescinded it and substituted a bill to ban discussion of divisive topics, Governor DeWine forced the resignation of his appointed members who had voted for the original anti-racism resolution.

Then, as the Plain Dealer‘s editors remind us, “Last January (2022) Gov. Mike DeWine redistricted State Board of Education districts in ways that appeared to target some of the elected board members who’d opposed him on last year’s repeal of the board’s anti-racism resolution. Voters then turned around and elected three new board members who campaigned on returning the board to educational policy pursuits. That expression of the voters’ will shouldn’t have prompted a frontal assault on the State Board of Education itself, supported by Gov. DeWine. But it appears it has.”

Network for Public Education Demands Further Regulation of For-Profit Charter School Sector

Last week, the Network for Public Education (NPE) published Chartered for Profit II: Pandemic Profiteering, a new report exposing the ongoing abuse of the public interest by the operators of for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs).

Some background…

In a Washington Post column last July, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris congratulated the U.S. Department of Education for imposing new rules to strengthen federal regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program, which has, since 1994,  awarded millions of dollars in federal grants for the startup and expansion of charter schools: “These new regulations are an essential first step in making sure that fewer tax dollars go to schools that never open, schools that quickly close, and for-profit operators. Unscrupulous individuals who used the program for their enrichment will find it more difficult to do so. ”

In December, just before Congress recessed for the holidays, however, Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), under pressure from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and other charter school lobbyists, offered a resolution to nullify the rules the Department of Education finalized in July for the purpose of strengthening oversight of the Charter Schools Program.

On December 14, 2022 the U.S. Senate rejected Sen. Scott’s proposal to block the Department’s new rules. Realizing that the work to make the charter school sector accountable must continue, however, last week the Network for Public Education published Chartered for Profit II: Pandemic Profiteering. It is notable that supporters of America’s public schools—concerned about all the ways for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) divert tax dollars for personal gain—are more than matching the doggedness of the charter school lobby.

What’s in NPE’s new report?

In Chartered for Profit II: Pandemic Profiteering, the Network for Public Education tracks the many abuses of the public interest by for-profit charter school operators since NPE published Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain two years ago:

“In this follow-up report on the charter for-profit sector, we chronicle its expansion during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic…. According to our research…. The percentage of students attending a charter school designed to produce a profit for its management company soared… (T)he total student enrollment in charter schools during the second year of the pandemic (the 2021-2022 school year) was 3,676,635. Student enrollment in for-profit-run charter schools jumped to 731,406 that year. That means that 20 percent of all charter school students… were enrolled in a charter school managed by a for-profit management corporation by the pandemic’s end. More disturbing is that 27 percent of the students attending for-profit-run schools were enrolled in low-quality virtual charter schools that teach students either exclusively or primarily online.” (emphasis in the original).

Although the new federal rules instituted last summer will stop federal grants from flowing to for-profit charter schools and to the nonprofit charter schools which are fully managed by for-profit Education Management Organizations, the new federal rules will not protect the public from lack of regulation in state laws. Charter schools, operating now in 45 states, are set up and primarily regulated in state law. Therefore, lack of oversight is largely a problem residing in state legislatures where the charter sector maintains a powerful lobby. Some states are especially permissive of for-profit charter schools: “Although most states allow for-profits to manage their charter schools, five states presently have a sizeable for-profit footprint. In three of the five states—Florida, Michigan, and Ohio—charters run-for-profit make up the majority of the charter sector.” In Michigan, 70% of charter schools are operated for-profit; In Florida, 52%; in Ohio 52%; in Nevada 40%; and in Arizona, 38%.

Education Management Companies typically take over small independently operated nonprofit schools or find nonprofit agencies to start up charter schools that will then be fully operated by the larger corporations.  In the new report, we learn more about Oklahoma’s notorious Epic Charter Schools, three of whose leaders were arrested in June of 2022 for shady financial dealings even as the online chain increased its enrollment “by over 31,000 students between 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school years alone.”  We learn about the five largest for-profit, brick and mortar Education Management Organizations: Academica, National Heritage Academy, Charter Schools USA, ACCEL, and Leona; and about the two biggest for-profit online academies: Stride K12 and Pearson’s Connections Academy.  We also learn that many Education Management Organizations are much smaller: “Micro-for-profits (EMOs that manage one or two schools) (now) comprise nearly half of all for-profit EMOs.”

How do the for-profit Educational Management Companies make a profit? “(T)he owners of EMOs extract profit thanks to the absence of oversight and regulation.  State governments fail to protect taxpayers from sweetheart deals, sweeps contracts, and related party transactions….”

  • Insider deals, formally referred to as related party transactions, occur when those who have control of a charter school’s decision-making process award contracts to their own companies or those owned by a family member, colleagues, or friends..” NPE traces sweetheart deals for example at Arizona’s Charter One empire. Glenn Way began sponsoring charter schools under the brand, “American Leadership Academy,” from his position as a state legislator in Utah, but, “Because he would be up against a charter cap in Utah, Way moved to Arizona, where for-profit entities can open and operate an unlimited number of schools under the nation’s loosest charter school laws.”  Way founded Charter One L.L.C., as a for-profit EMO to manage the American Leadership Academy schools, founded Schoolhouse Development to rent school facilities to his schools at exorbitant leasing rates, started a construction company to provide construction and building services, and launched an apparel company to provide school uniforms. “Way’s charter empire is now moving beyond Arizona into Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina.”
  • “A sweeps contract is an arrangement in which a charter school turns over all or nearly all of its public funding to an operator who then runs the school.” In such an arrangement, the board of the nonprofit charter school being managed by the EMO has no way to track whether the funds are being used to provide services for students or whether they are being siphoned into profits for the EMO. NPE reports that, “National Heritage Academies… runs more than 100 schools with sweeps contracts.” ACCEL Schools runs its 54 schools with sweeps contracts. ” Florida’s Charter Schools U.S.A., the third largest for-profit chain, operates its schools with sweeps contracts, as does the Leona Group, based in Michigan.”
  • Sweetheart real estate deals are how “the real money is made.” “The five biggest for-profit management companies—Academica, National Heritage Academy, Charter Schools U.S.A., ACCEL, and Leona—have related real estate corporations with contracts that put the EMO in charge of lease relationships.” The report abounds with examples.  Here is one: “The largest EMO is Academica, based in Miami, Florida. Academica’s owner is a real estate developer, Fernando Zulueta, who opened the first charter, Somerset, as part of a housing development he had constructed… Over 100 active corporations linked to Fernando Zulueta and his family members… include real estate corporations, holding companies, and finance corporations, as well as sub-chains both within and outside of Florida… The connection between Fernando Zulueta’s real estate holdings and his for-profit managed charter schools goes beyond the state of Florida. According to the State Public Charter School Authority, Academica Nevada pays the lease on behalf of the charter school Mater Academy Mountain Vista of Nevada to Stephanie Development L.L.C. The managing members of Stephanie Development are Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta and Robert and Clayton Howell. Robert Howell is the manager of Academica Nevada.”

NPE outlines all the ways that states should strengthen their regulation for-profit management of charter schools. Finally the Network for Public Education presses the federal government further to expand its regulations: to “require all charter schools that receive federal funds to provide the name and corporate status of any entity that provides management services as well as the names and services provided by all vendors that are related corporations of the EMO.”  Further, NPE recommends that, “charter schools run by EMOs via a sweeps contract not be eligible to receive any federal funds.  Sweeps contracts are a blatant violation of the spirit of federal law, which permits only non-profit schools to be recipients of federal funds.”

The Network for Public Education reminds readers that, “In the for-profit charter market, every customer who walks through the door comes in with ample cash provided by taxpayers.”

Will Americans Want a 2024 Presidential Candidate Who Brazenly Subverts His State’s College Curricula and Politicizes Education?

Strategies to politicize public education are likely the symptom of a backlash against historical developments in a culture’s understanding of itself and/or an era of political divisiveness when one side wants to impose its particular view of a society and that society’s history and its cultural norms on everybody else.

We watched Glenn Youngkin storm through the Virginia governor’s race a couple of years ago with the support of middle class, white suburban mothers—funded by ideologues and supplied with materials from the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute—advocating to ban anything resembling a multicultural curriculum, which they branded as critical race theory.  Across the states, we are watching the same political thrust in the mass of culture war bills being debated in the state legislatures—anti-woke bills, “Don’t say gay bills,” bills that say teachers groom children, and all the attacks on what is being called critical race theory.

There are two ways politicians promoting this sort of thing are proceeding. The first is to pass laws banning the teaching or mentioning of certain subjects; the other is to change the people who oversee the agencies or boards that control what is going on at school. Ohio’s legislature has—so far unsuccessfully—tried both methods of political control of education.  Besides introducing a mass of bills to ban the teaching of divisive subjects, the far-right Republican legislature has been trying to manipulate the makeup of the state board of education—getting some appointed members fired for their positions on culture war issues and even trying to subsume the important functions of the independent state board, whose majority is still independently elected by the people, under a new state department controlled by the governor.

By passing and imposing several elements of this kind of agenda, one American politician today has taken political manipulation of education to a new level (see here, and here) by experimenting with both strategies: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

When, last February, Florida’s legislature was considering DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” which later passed and was signed into law by DeSantis, the Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Lori Rozsa profiled a Miami Beach high school speech and debate teacher:

“The school system in Florida’s most populous county includes students whose families moved here from 160 nations. Its expansive cultural mix is represented in the district’s curriculum, which includes not only American history, but also the stories of violent government upheavals, such as the revolution of enslaved people who founded Haiti, and the more recent political trauma of protestors who fled or perished in Castro’s Cuba. But as Florida lawmakers consider legislation to police what students are taught, Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Russell Rywell wonders if he will still be able to discuss how some of his students’ ancestors arrived in the United States. ‘How do you teach slavery? The slave trade? The Holocaust?’ asked Rywell… who has taught in Miami-Dade County’s public schools for 11 years. ‘How do you teach these issues without talking about the participants and the roles they played?'”

Governor DeSantis’s latest effort to politicize public education is at Florida’s state colleges and universities, not at the K-12 level, but it is perhaps the most outrageously symbolic of the whole series of attacks across the states on independent public schooling. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘s Zac Anderson reports that last Friday, “Gov. Ron DeSantis began the process… of transforming Sarasota’s New College of Florida into a more conservative institution, appointing six new board members, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a dean at conservative Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank… The shakeup of the 13-member board is certain to create major tensions at New College, an institution that started as a progressive private school before becoming the state’s liberal arts honors college. The small school’s student body and faculty have a reputation for leaning left politically. Turning New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale would amount to flipping it upside down, a wholesale reinvention akin to a hostile takeover, and one that many current students and faculty are likely to resist.”

Anderson continues: “DeSantis aides blasted the school Friday and said an overhaul is needed. ‘Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,’ said DeSantis’ communications Director Taryn Fenske.”

In case you have forgotten about Christopher Rufo, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss provides a short review: “Rufo is a Republican activist who in 2020 caught Trump’s eye with an appearance on Fox News in which Rufo declared that critical race theory had ‘pervaded every institution in the federal government.'” She reminds readers that in 2021, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey profiled Rufo as a documentary film maker explaining how to reframe and redefine the concept of “critical race theory,” previously known as a theoretical concept taught in law schools as part of the study of the history of structural racism in America.

Meckler and Dawsey quoted Rufo: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Later in 2021, we learned from the National Education Policy Center that Christopher Rufo was not only a documentary film maker, but also a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Now from Zac Anderson’s report we discover that Rufo has also become a dean at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.

Anderson tells us more about these institutions and what they illuminate about Gov. DeSantis’s goals for politicizing Florida’s public colleges and universities: “Joining Rufo on the New College board is Matthew Spalding, a professor of constitutional government at Hillsdale College and dean of the college’s graduate school of government in Washington, D.C. Spalding was vice president of American studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.”

Anderson continues: “Hillsdale is a small Christian college in Michigan that has been active in conservative education politics. DeSantis spoke at Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar last year and has tapped the school to help reshape Florida’s education system. Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute is joining the New College board… ‘Claremont scholars have collaborated with Ron DeSantis and helped shape the views of Clarence Thomas, Tom Cotton and the conservative activist Christopher Rufo’… the New York Times wrote last year. Trump lawyer John Eastman (is) another senior fellow at the Claremont Institute….”

In last week’s column, Valerie Strauss reminds readers that Hillsdale College’s President Larry Arnn, “was in the news recently when he said that teachers ‘are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country’ and that ‘anyone’ can teach. He headed Trump’s 1776 Commission….”

According to Anderson, Christopher Rufo has already begun promoting Governor DeSantis’s plan to politicize higher education in Florida: “‘Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs,’ Rufo wrote.  Among Rufo’s goals for New College…: Restructuring the administration, developing ‘a new core curriculum,’ eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion policies and restructuring academic departments.”

On Tuesday, NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg quoted Rufo about his plans as a New College trustee: “Later this month, Rufo said he’ll travel to New College with a ‘landing team’ of board members, lawyers, consultants and political allies. ‘We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring,’ he said, with plans to ‘design a new core curriculum from scratch’ and ‘encode it in a new academic master plan.'” What DeSantis and Rufo seem to be planning is a frontal attack on a principle that has been understood as the foundation of higher education across the United States: academic freedom.

As Governor Ron DeSantis becomes better known as a potential candidate for President in 2024—in a nation where polls show that citizens prize their public schools—will DeSantis’s agenda for public K-12 education and for public universities threaten his political viability?

Pro-Voucher Lobbying Group Funds a Questionable Report to Support Its Fight Against Vouchers Hurt Ohio Lawsuit

On Friday, December 16, 2022,  Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jaiza Page denied the state’s request that she dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio Lawsuit filed nearly a year ago by a coalition that now includes 130 of the state’s 610 public school districts. The Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit declares that Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program violates the state constitution. The case may now proceed to trial.

The plaintiffs in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit declare: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

Not surprisingly, and also in December of 2022, the Thomas Fordham Institute, a pro-voucher lobbying organization, published  a new report by Stephane Lavertu and John Gregg, two professors at the Ohio State University, to dispute the plaintiffs’ arguments.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver summarizes the researchers’ three primary findings:

  • “Racial segregation in public schools decreased” when private school voucher programs expanded.
  • Public “schools don’t lose money when kids take EdChoice scholarships.”
  • “Students who stay in public school don’t do worse. The lawsuit sitting before the Franklin County judge didn’t expressly say that districts are harmed academically by the voucher program, but this was something Lavertu looked into.”

What about racial segregation?   Staver quotes Professor Lavertu defending his finding that school segregation decreased: “Certainly, at the state level, minority students are more likely to have vouchers… Statewide, we know that disproportionately they go to non-white students.”

Steve Dyer a public schools advocate, blogger, and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, calls Professor Lavertu’s bluff: “The study compares the racial makeup of voucher students with the statewide racial makeup of Ohio students.” Dyer points out instead that racial segregation is a district-by-district condition; the state’s overall racial makeup is quite irrelevant to what may be happening within each of the state’s 610 school districts.  Dyer explains: “There are 95 districts that lose 10 students or more to EdChoice. In 76 of those districts, accounting for 87% of all vouchers given through the program, a higher percentage of white students take vouchers than… (the percentage of white students) in that district. The average difference between (the percentage of) white students taking vouchers and (the percentage of) white students in those 76 districts was 76.2%. That means that in the districts where 87% of voucher students come from, voucher recipients are 76.2 % more likely to be white than their public school counterparts.” Dyer concludes that the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit’s claim that EdChoice vouchers contribute to racial segregation is correct.

What about the effect of EdChoice vouchers on public school funding?     Lavertu and Gregg say their study proves that school districts don’t lose money when kids take EdChoice vouchers. How can this be possible?  After all, the state has not increased taxes to pay the extra cost.  As Staver reminds us, in 2021, the Legislature changed funding mechanism for EdChoice vouchers. Before 2021, the Legislature funded the vouchers directly out of local school district budgets, but in 2021, the state began paying for the ever-increasing number of vouchers right out of the state public school foundation budget. Whether the money was extracted from the local district budgets or is now extracted from the state’s public school budget, how is it possible to contend that the growth of the EdChoice voucher program has not reduced overall public school funding?

I also  wonder about the new report’s focus on the statewide fiscal impact of the vouchers rather than the effects (often disequalizing) from school district to school district. Like all school funding systems, Ohio’s is very complicated and affects each district idiosyncratically due to the amount and makeup of the district’s local property tax base. The funding for EdChoice vouchers in Ohio is also variable from district to district.

Steve Dyer interprets the report as an admission that, “EdChoice forces local school districts to rely more on property taxes to pay for educating the students in public schools.” Dyer quotes the 2002 DeRolph decision in which the Ohio Supreme Court declared overreliance on local property taxes unconstitutional: “The overreliance on local property taxes is the fatal flaw that until rectified will stand in the way of constitutional compliance.”

Finally, what about Lavertu and Gregg’s perplexing finding that the growth of EdChoice vouchers to pay for private school tuition has driven an increase in public school test scores?  Staver quotes Lavertu: “The average student in an EdChoice district experienced an increase in district-wide achievement… Unfortunately, we are unable to determine how much the positive effect is due to students learning gains as opposed to changes in student composition.”

In a December 30, 2022 column for the Columbus Dispatch, the Fordham Institute’s own Research Director Aaron Churchill tries to spin the meaning of the report’s finding—that the increase in voucher use has driven up public school achievement as measured by test scores—by falling back on the old argument for competition: “First, the achievement of district students modestly rises as a result of EdChoice… (T)he finding might reflect the program’s targeting of lower-performing schools within a district, leaving behind somewhat higher-achieving pupils. It also follows other studies showing that, while not a cure-all, choice programs have a positive ‘competitive effect’ on public schools… (D)istrict students benefit academically when the competition intensifies and schools are motivated to bolster their education offerings.”

If and when the new study by Lavertu and Gregg is ever peer-reviewed, I will be interested to read the analysis. Until then I find myself comparing the study to the facts in my own school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH), one of the lead plaintiffs in the Voucher’s Hurt Ohio lawsuit.

  • As someone who has worked for years in various capacities to mount volunteer-led local school property tax levy campaigns, I am certain that that Steve Dyer is correct: Students taking vouchers away from our school district have increased our district’ s overreliance on local property taxes. The Vouchers Hurt Ohio legal complaint itself cites Cleveland Heights-University Heights’ losses of funding to EdChoice vouchers as an example of the fiscal damage to school district budgets: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, for example, is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”
  • Certainly vouchers are not reducing racial segregation in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools. Steve Dyer’s data confirm that enrollment in CH-UH is 17.5 percent white, but that 90.3 percent of the 1,873 students taking an EdChoice voucher are white.
  • Finally, it is impossible for me to believe that students carrying vouchers from the budget of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools are somehow stimulating an improvement in our district’s overall standardized test scores. The treasurer in our school district reported that in 2020, 94 percent of students taking an EdChoice voucher from CH-UH have never been enrolled in our public schools; these students in almost every case have always been enrolled in religious schools.


Josh Cowen is a professor at Michigan State University who has conducted voucher research for two decades and who warns that overall, students do better academically in their neighborhood public schools than by taking a voucher to a private school.  Cowen explains: “Large-scale independent studies in D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show that for kids who left public schools, harmful voucher impacts actually meet or exceed what the pandemic did to test scores…. The newer D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies that took place after 2013 and have showed pandemic… sized harm to student test scores (in) all… at-scale voucher programs.  What do I mean by ‘at scale?’ I mean that despite limited evidence in those (earlier) pilot programs, vouchers have been steadily expanding across the country, and within states.  So those D.C. Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies represent our best understanding to date of what happens when you expand vouchers beyond the initial test phase… For the vast majority of kids, they’re better off in public schools. That’s what the latest voucher research shows.”

Cowen warns about trusting voucher reports that are funded by pro-voucher advocacy organizations: “It’s difficult to tell how much money has been spent to advocate for school vouchers over the years. But we know perhaps the biggest single funder… is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is a little-known group based in Wisconsin and they’ve given tens of millions of dollars to voucher activism over the years.  Bradley not only funds voucher activism, it funds voucher research too…  Generally speaking, you don’t want activism and research funding to mix. Think about it this way: should the Sackler family fund research on the addictive properties of Oxycontin?  Should Exxon fund studies about the existence of climate change?”

When I look at the findings in Lavertu and Gregg’s new report on Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers, I find it unsurprising that the new report was paid for and published by the Thomas Fordham Institute, one of Ohio’s several pro-voucher lobbying organizations.

Ohio’s Public Schools Had a Rough 2022 and Face Bleak Legislative Prospects in 2023

In the midst of the big 2022 Christmas week storm, a frozen sprinkler-system pipe burst at the Ohio Statehouse and flooded the state senate chamber.  This year in Ohio’s gerrymandered, supermajority Republican legislature, democracy itself has been so severely threatened that many of us wondered if the event was an expression of cosmic justice.

As Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor retired due to the state’s mandated age limit, O’Connor—herself a Republican—condemned legislators who created one gerrymandered legislative and Congressional district map after another, O’Connor told the Associated Press: “My advice to them was, please review the Constitution and maybe go back to, what is it, fourth or fifth grade and learn about our institutions… And maybe, just maybe, review what it was like in Germany when Hitler intimidated the judiciary and passed those laws that allowed for the treatment of the Jewish population… This country cannot stand if the judiciary is intimidated.” The AP reports that, “In retirement, she has pledged to champion a constitutional amendment that fixes Ohio’s redistricting process…”

Ohio legislators have shown that in 2023 they are determined to increase the threshold for passing a state constitutional amendment from a simple 50 percent majority to a 60 percent majority. Here is Brent Larkin, the Plain Dealer‘s editorial page director from 1991 to 2009: “Many of these same Ohio officeholders and legislators involved in the scheme to limit citizen involvement in state government are the same ones who ignored the Ohio Constitution when they defied the will of the people by drawing gerrymandered legislative districts designed to remove any element of fairness from the redistricting process.” “The betrayal of public trust is breathtaking, though hardly surprising. The legislature leaving office is probably the most unscrupulous in Ohio’s history. Statehouse insiders believe the one taking office this week will be worse.”

With such serious threats to democracy and a mass of controversial bills on a range of issues, one danger is that concerns about public education will just slip through the cracks.  Because it is essential that the public be informed about our state’s most pervasive and influential institution—our public schools, here is a summary of what happened in Ohio public education policy this year.

Bad Things that Did Not Happen in 2022

The 134th Ohio General Assembly did not pass Ohio Senate Bill 178 to hollow out the Ohio State Board of Education and shift its primary responsibilities (including overseeing the Department of Education itself) to a new cabinet Department of Education and the Workforce under the Governor.  Politics have already to some degree invaded the Ohio State Board of Education, because the governor already appoints 8 of its 19 members.  And during the past two years there have been several legislative/gubernatorial interventions to gerrymander the districts of elected members to favor Republicans, and to fire unruly members and appoint new members who would be more faithful to Ohio Republicans’ priorities.

In 2022, the Ohio Senate passed SB 178 to move the important functions of the State Board of Education under the governor’s control, to insulate the state board from the will of the people, and to remove many of the State Board’s responsibilities. In December, during the last week of the legislative session, SB 178 was heard by the House Education Committee, but the bill never came up for committee vote and never was acted on by the Ohio House.  At 2:30 AM, before the the 134th General Assembly permanently adjourned at 6:30 AM,  Senate President Matt Huffman inserted the entire 2,144 page SB 178 into HB 151 to ban transgender girls from sports, inserted another amendment to ban school vaccine mandates, and sent the entire package back to the Ohio House, where it failed by 6 votes.  Although this problematic bill failed in the 134th General Assembly, Senate President Matt Huffman has pledged another attempt during 2023 to politicize the State Board of Education in the 135th Ohio General Assembly.

A Mass of Culture War Bills Will Die Because They Never Came Up for a Vote (For details, see Honesty for Ohio Education or the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education.)

    • HB 322, HB 327, and HB 616 to ban teaching and materials about divisive concepts including racism and sexual orientation.
    • HB 529 to demand that school curricula be posted online.
    • HB 454 to ban gender affirming care for minors.
    • HB 704 to affirm that gender identity is identifiable at birth according to DNA.
    • HB 722 to ban discussion of any ‘sexually explicit’ content and establish a ‘parents bill of rights.’
    • SB 361 to enable former military troops to become teachers with relaxed credentialing.
    • SB 365 to include curriculum about free market capitalism in educational standards.

HB 290, the “Backpack” universal education savings account voucher program never came up for a vote in the 134th General Assembly. Most people expect, however, that a similar bill will be introduced in the 135th General Assembly, perhaps as part of the FY 2024-2025 biennial budget bill.  For more information see here.

Good Things that Did Not Happen in 2022

The Ohio Legislature did not pass HB 497 to eliminate the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. After HB 497 passed the Ohio House by a margin of 82-10 and after the bill was unanimously endorsed by the Ohio State Board of Education, HB 497 was never considered by the Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee and never forwarded for a vote by the full Ohio Senate. The bill died with the end of the 134th Ohio General Assembly. The bill would have eliminated mandatory retention in third grade of any student who does not reach a proficient score on the state’s third grade achievement test. Research demonstrates that holding kids back in grade damages self esteem and makes it more likely that students will drop out of school before graduating from high school. For background see here.

Bad Things that Happened in 2022

The Ohio State Board of Education adopted, by a 10-7 vote, a resolution to oppose the Biden Administration’s proposed addition of LGBTQ protections to Title IX.  On December 13, 2022, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported: “After months of debate and hundreds of personal testimonies, Ohio’s State Board of Education voted 10 to 7… to push back against the Biden Administration’s plan to add LGBTQ protections to Title IX.”  For more information, see here.

The Ohio Legislature passed an amendment to HB 45 to weaken state incentives to improve preschool and childcare programs.  HB 45 eliminates the requirement that preschool and childcare centers participate in the state’s own Step Up to Quality program to receive state funds. Signal News‘s Paul Rochford reported that before this bill passed, “all early childhood and preschool providers funded by the Department of Education… (were) required to participate in the rating system and…  receive a rating of three or more stars to be eligible for state funding.” The change is likely to undermine the quality of childcare and preschool for Ohio’s poorest children. (Governor DeWine has not yet signed HB 45 and could still potentially line-item veto this provision.)

Mysterious Ohio State Tuition Tax Credit Voucher Program surfaces two years after it was established in the fine print of HB 110, the 2022-2023 state budget. Suddenly parents have received flyers from private schools announcing a new tuition tax credit program that will fund private and religious schools at the expense of the state’s general revenue fund.  Here is one brand new article covering this program.  The only news I could uncover about this program at the time it was passed is this summary from The Highland County Press.

The Three Most Serious Problems for U.S. Public Education in 2023

The new year is a good time to stop and consider where our society stands in terms of its public priorities. During the first week of 2023, this blog will consider three overall problems of federal public education policy that undermine our public schools, their teachers, and our children. On Thursday, the topic will be serious concerns at the state level, with a focus on my state, Ohio.

In a wonderful post last week at Curmuducation, Peter Greene examined 11 different conditions that imperil public schooling as we begin 2023. Two of the threats to public schooling he identifies in the past year rise to a level of importance above all the others: “the Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” and “High Stakes Testing.”

I agree with Greene’s assessment, with one difference: He traces the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” in 2023 to the culture warriors who attack the teaching of so-called critical race theory, who won’t let teachers say “gay,” and who think teachers are somehow grooming children.  He’s right about that, but I think we should also remember that the culture war attacks are merely the most recent strand of a four-decades long attack that began in 1983 with the Ronald Reagan-era, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for undermining America’s position in the world.

So… what do I believe are the three greatest perils facing public schooling as we begin 2023?

Peril #1: “High Stakes Testing” and the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement ” are together being used to discredit America’s system of public education.

In 2001, Congress prescribed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the cure for A Nation at Risk‘s diagnosis of “failing” public schools. NCLB brought us high stakes school accountability as embodied in annual standardized testing along with punishments for the schools unable to raise test scores every year. The 2001, NCLB “solution” to our “failing” public schools was, of course, what Peter Greene calls this year’s second huge threat: “High Stakes Testing.” We need to remember that high states standardized testing is very much still with us. For decades now the press and the testing companies and the accountability hawks have bombarded society with the message that standardized test scores must stay on a perpetual upward trajectory. Even when a worldwide pandemic and consequent school closures temporarily disrupted the trajectory of ever rising scores, many people, therefore, came to fear that our children have “lost decades of improvement.”

But the damage of the annual high-stakes testing is deeper and more insidious in all the ways the testing undermines and discredits our public system of education.  Testing, with all of the drilling and narrowing what’s being taught, has undermined teaching. In NCLB, Congress also tied scores to teacher evaluation in a way that was shown to be unreliable. The federal government imposed sanctions like school reconstitution and mandatory charterization on public schools which struggled to raise scores. Thousands of students have been held back in third grade based on one test score even though there is evidence that being held back even once increases the probability that a student will drop out of school before graduating.  In the minds of the public, test scores now measure the quality of the school, the quality of the teachers, and the quality of each school district as the place to invest in a house. States are still required by the federal government to rank and rate the schools and to create school report cards that are published in the newspaper.

While some of the history of No Child Left Behind school accountability has faded in our memories, the “Don’t Trust the Schools Movement” is on a many levels still driven and entangled with “High Stakes Testing.”  And this year, as high stakes testing continues to undermine confidence in our schools and as the culture warriors and parents’ rights advocates clamor to discredit teachers, state legislators are feeling empowered to listen as EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute pressure them to redirect desperately needed tax dollars to privatized alternatives by growing voucher programs and expanding charter schools.

In the midst of all the controversy as we begin 2023, we’ve forgotten about a second peril.  This one is not part of Peter Greene’s list.

Peril #2:  Public Schools Across the United States remain alarmingly unequal.

First Focus on Children just released a new report: Big Ideas 2023, whose first chapter by constitutional scholar and author of Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black proclaims the importance of Reclaiming the Federal Role in Education: educational equity. Black reminds us that much of today’s conversation about public schooling seems to have drifted away from the goals of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act and one of the Department of Education’s primary programs, Title I:

“On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.  Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%. The federal government has done little to stem the decline. Most disturbing, some states are currently taking steps to amend their state constitutions and make cuts to education even easier.”

Black explains that in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but he adds that in the 2015 version Congress did not improve the federal education law: “Congress simply stripped the federal government of regulatory power and vastly expanded state discretion. For the first time in 50 years, the federal government now lacks the ability to make prompt improvements in student achievement or to demand equal resources for low-income students… Congress can realign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… with its historic mission of improving academic achievement and equity for low-income students, but it should also enact better mechanisms to achieve those goals. First, ESEA must increase federal investment in education. An increased federal investment is also necessary if states are to accept the second step: strict prohibitions on the unequal distribution of educational resources by states. The final step is to expand preschool education to all low-income students—a goal the Department of Education has pushed in recent years, but which states seemingly lack the capacity to reach alone.”

Derek Black reminds us that there is an urgent need for the federal government to reclaim and act on its traditional role as the guarantor of educational equity.  But equity cannot be achieved  by schools alone, which brings us to the third peril.

Peril #3: In 2022, Congress chose not to ameliorate child poverty.

Over a decade ago in a 2009 report, Lost Opportunity, the Schott Foundation for Public Education made a stunning effort to redefine what No Child Left Behind called “achievement gaps” and to shift our nation’s goal to closing children’s “opportunity gaps” not only at school but also in the whole of their lives.  What are all the factors that affect a child’s “Opportunity to Learn”?  Research demonstrates that child poverty itself creates perhaps the most serious of our society’s opportunity gaps.

Here is David Berliner, a retired professor of education and the former president of the American Educational Research Association: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services.”

Professor of education at the University of Colorado and director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner adds: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system…?” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

While in 2021, as part of the American Rescue COVID relief bill, Congress temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit, the expansion ended at the beginning of 2022. Then, last fall (2022) it appeared there was a chance that Congress would, as part of the year-end omnibus budget act, make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, but the moment has now passed.

Writing for The New Republic, Grace Segers recounts what happened: “The implementation of the expanded child tax credit was akin to a social experiment in real time, with almost immediate results. During the six months it was in effect, the credit reached more than 60 million children in 36 million households. Due in large part to the expanded child tax credit, child poverty was cut nearly in half in 2021 compared to 2022, according to the Census Bureau. Food insufficiency also decreased significantly among families with children, dropping from a rate of 11 percent to 8.4 percent after the first monthly payment was distributed in July 2021.”

Segers continues: “The results of the credit’s expiration were as immediate as those of its implementation. January 2022 saw 3.7 million more children fall beneath the poverty line compared ‘to December 2021. That increase was particularly dramatic for Black and Latino children. Following the end of the expanded child tax credit, there was a 28 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Black children, and a 40 percent increase in the child poverty rate for Latino children from December 2021 to February 2022. The expiration of the expanded credit was also associated with a 25 percent increase in food insufficiency for families with children.”

Segers concludes that as the new Congress gets underway in January 2023 the chance for expanding the Child Tax Credit in the next couple of years is likely gone: “With Republicans taking control of the House in January, these final weeks of the year represented the last chance for the foreseeable future for the Democratic majority in both houses to reinstate the credit.”

With both chambers of Congress last year majority Democrat, 2022 was also probably the end of any chance in the immediate future to reduce reliance on mandated standardized testing accompanied by all of the high-stakes punishments for public schools or to shift attention back to the traditional role of the Department of Education—promoting educational equity at the federal level and incentivizing states to equalize their educational investment.

Like Peter Greene, I believe there are major threats to public schooling as we begin 2023. In this time when Congressional action is unlikely, the questions for those of us who support public education are:

  • how to keep on pushing to clear out the awful lingering policy around test-based school accountability;
  • how to keep on pushing back against widespread attacks on public education itself; and
  • how to keep on speaking for the needs of our society’s poorest children as well as for the needs of their public schools.

We need to remember the importance of protecting public education—our nation’s system of publicly funded, universally available, and publicly accountable schools. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that, by law, protects the rights of all students.