Federal Coronavirus Relief Act Will Provide Urgently Needed Money for Public Schools, But Not Nearly Enough

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa contrasts the public education support in the new federal coronavirus stimulus passed this week by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump to the 2009 federal stimulus passed during the Obama administration to address the Great Recession: “Remember the last time we had a big federal stimulus for education? The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended up being a lot smaller than the coronavirus aid package President Donald Trump signed last week, but it included much more money for education in coping with the impact of the Great Recession. And it also teed up President Barack Obama’s education agenda for his two terms… The majority of the 2009 stabilization cash—$48.6 billion—went out to states by formula for early learning, K-12, and postsecondary education. The remaining money? It was earmarked for Race to the Top and the Investing in What Works and Innovation programs.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Let’s pause for a moment and express gratitude that this week the Trump administration has not earmarked any of what will be desperately needed education relief funding to force states to qualify to participate in a competitive grantmaking process like Race to the Top.  Remember when, just to qualify for money from that particular federal stimulus program, states were forced to grade their teachers according to their students’ test scores and spend the money on rapid school turnaround plans like firing principals and teachers, charterizing schools, and closing schools. In this very significant way, we are all much better off.

But, according to experts, we are also worse off in 2020 than in 2009.  Why?  So far, at least, there is a whole lot less federal money available to meet the challenges public schools will need to address in the current emergency and as they try to get back up and running in the context of what is likely to be a state fiscal crisis. All the things states tax in order to generate the revenue to operate public services are now losing money. Sadly many businesses are closing and many people are losing their jobs. State budgets are likely to be much reduced in the immediate future.

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra, Jessica Levin, and Wendy Lecker provide the details about the relief package signed into law this week: “In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has provided $13.5 billion in emergency relief to help local school districts and states respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s public schools… The CARES Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to address educational needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.  About half of that sum is designated for higher education, $3 billion for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and the rest ($13.5 billion) for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.  Most of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund—over $12 billion—will be distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), that is, school districts and charter schools.  States must allocate at least 90% to LEAs as subgrants in the proportion that the LEAs receive Title I funds.  LEAs and states can use their allocations from this Emergency Relief Fund for a wide range of expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.”

This time, unlike 2009, states and school districts have considerable freedom about how they can spend the funds—any activity authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, activities to support the needs of low-income students, disabled students, English language learners, racial and ethnic minority students, homeless students and students in the foster care system.  States and school districts can use the federal funds for educational technology, mental health support for students, coordinating long-term closures, providing meals, and creating guidelines to help design online programming during the crisis.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss just published a column by Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, in which Black demonstrates all the ways the CARES Act is likely to be inadequate to the challenges public schools face in the upcoming months and even the next several years. Why is the size of the federal CARES Act so important for education?  “A century and a half ago, citizens began approving state constitutions that made public education their states’ first priority. They did it for a very good reason. They knew times like these would come. They knew the foundation of society had to be solid. Education should be the last place, not the first, that states look to make budget cuts in the troubled economic times ahead.”

Black reviews what has happened to state public education funding in the decade following the Great Recession: “During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.  States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded… Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of states’ revenues, and for good reason.  Public education, as the Supreme Court wrote, is ‘the most important function of state and local governments.’ It serves as the ‘foundation of good citizenship’ and ‘democratic society.’ Yet, when the economy faltered in 2008, states made little, if any, attempt to shield schools.  Several states even targeted education for cuts. Wisconsin waged a ‘war’ on teacher benefits. North Carolina and Florida cut education spending from about $10,000 per pupil to $7,000 in just three years… States then refused to replenish education funding even after the economy rebounded. The latest available data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as late as the 2016-17 school year, education funding remained below pre-recession levels in real dollar terms in most states—sometimes up to 30 percent lower.”

Black continues: “Students paid the price. The overwhelming social science consensus demonstrates that money matters to student achievement and current funding levels are woefully inadequate. A 2008 study revealed that the average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less than they need per student.”

Can the members of our state legislatures have failed to learn the important lesson about how funding cuts after the Great Recession damaged opportunity for so many children?  Sadly, Black believes so: “The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states—Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year—increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.”

Sciarra, Levin, and Lecker echo Derek Black’s concerns about the limitations of the CARES Act just passed by Congress and signed by the President: “The $13.5 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund can help states and districts meet the immediate challenge of providing effective and equitable opportunities for all students, though more funds may be needed even in the short-term. States must also prepare for the likelihood that thousands, if not millions, of students will return to school having experienced significant learning loss. These students will require remedial and ‘compensatory’ services, programs and interventions to make up for the loss and put them academically back on track as quickly as possible. Vulnerable student populations will be most impacted and most in need… Congress must move beyond ’emergency’ relief to ‘mitigation’ funding for K-12 education…. States must not react to the pandemic by enacting deep and harmful state aid cuts, as occurred during and after the 2008 recession.  The harmful impact of those cuts fell on the districts, schools and students with the most need and least ability to make up the funds through increases in local revenue.”

Black warns: “If the current crisis is teaching us anything, it is just how hard and important schools’ jobs are. Kids cannot stare at a screen or book for seven hours a day, nor should they. Parents, employers and hopefully lawmakers are painfully realizing just how central school services are to everyone’s lives and the basic operation of the economy.”

Even Though Schools Are Closed, Advocates Must Keep on Pushing to End Dangerous School “Deformer” Policies

Those of us who care about American public schools have spent nearly twenty years working to undo the damage of a school accountability and privatization movement that has ruined our schools, heaped pressure on teachers and children, and created a publicly funded, private education sector. School privatization on top of widespread state tax slashing has robbed education budgets—ensuring that our children can have neither the basic services they need nor the kind of stimulating, exciting and rigorous education our wealthiest society in the world ought to be able to provide for them.

The pause this month, as public schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, has forced a lot of people to notice that public schools are a more important institution than many had perhaps realized.  We are noticing, for example, that virtual learning cannot substitute for real live teachers working personally to support children as they learn together. And we’ve been forced to notice all the ways we count on schools, as a universal system that provides care and supervision every day and even ensures that hungry children are fed.

At some point, however, schools will reopen, and when they do, I hope those of us who have been working for decades to repair the damage of twenty years of “school deform” won’t have been distracted.  Because we are a society with a short memory, it’s worth reviewing the goals we were working to realize before March, 2020 when the pandemic shut down our public schools.  There is a likelihood that the economic damage from the pandemic may bring added challenges, and we will no doubt be told that the new crisis, whatever it is, is the only thing that matters.

Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, Slaying Goliath, is a particularly timely guide for public school advocates in the months ahead. Ravitch explicitly traces how policy around the public schools has gone badly wrong, and she profiles the work of individuals and emerging movements to save public education after the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She also names the lavishly funded advocacy groups pushing policies that undermine public education; they are dogged people who are not going to give up.

Ravitch describes the proponents of test-based, corporate driven education policy as “Disrupters”: “Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing… Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation because high tech businesses do it, so it must be good.. They love charter schools because charters are start-ups without histories just like many new businesses in the modern corporate world… The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter… Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training… because it costs less… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders… The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority…. They are devoted to cutting taxes, cutting spending on public schools, and turning control of public schools over to private corporations….”  (Slaying Goliath, pp. 28-30)  “Years from now,” writes Ravitch, “historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50.)

Certainly those of us who support public school improvement do not want merely to return to the past. Correcting injustices in our public system, improving teaching, and expanding the opportunity to learn for all children means neither returning to the past nor endorsing the status quo.  We do, however, agree with the goals Ravitch identifies as the traditional domain of constructive advocates for public schools: “Before the current era, true reformers wanted to make public schools better. They wanted public schools to have more resources. They wanted better prepared teachers or better curriculum, or better teaching materials. They wanted teachers to have higher salaries and smaller classes. They wanted districts to have modern buildings and better playing fields and better physical equipment. They wanted schools to be racially integrated so that all children had the chance to learn alongside others who were different from themselves. They wanted schools to have nurses, health clinics, social workers, psychologists, librarians and libraries, up-to-date technology, and programs for students with disabilities and English language learners.  They wanted all children to have equality of educational opportunity.  They wanted to have good schools with good teachers.” (Slaying Goliath, pp. 27-28)

Schools are closed this spring, but eventually our children and their teachers will return, and the well-funded Disrupters will be back at work trying to push their panoply of policies.

For those of us who stand with the public schools, here are four basic goals to remember throughout this interlude of school closures and as children and their teachers return to their classrooms:

SUPPORT ADEQUATE SCHOOL FUNDING     Champions of public education need to be prepared to advocate strenuously for states to maintain their support for public education even if another recession follows the coronavirus pandemic. After the Great Recession, school funding collapsed across the states. In a 2019 report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented that in 24 of the 50 states, combined state-local, basic-aid school funding (adjusted for inflation) had not, by 2016, risen back to pre-2008 levels. Additionally, because decades of research confirm that segregation by family and neighborhood income is the primary driver of school achievement gaps, advocates will need to pay attention to broader public public programs designed to support families and ameliorate family poverty, press for more full-service wraparound Community Schools, and press for funding to support, rather than punish school districts where test scores are low.  It isn’t merely state budgets which have fallen behind.  This year, Democratic candidates for President have been supporting at least tripling federal Title I funding that invests in school districts where poverty is concentrated, and advocating that the federal government meet its 1975 promise of paying 40 percent of the cost of federally mandated programming under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Today the federal government is covering less than 15 percent of those costs.

PRESS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING     Standardized testing must be significantly reduced and must be decoupled from the kind of high stakes that have dominated federal and state policy since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January, 2002.  We now know that No Child Left Behind and the policies it mandated across the states did not work; scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flatlined in recent years. Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains why using widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.  Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

SUPPORT CHILDREN BY PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT TEACHERS’ STRIKES HAVE TAUGHT US     Teachers’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.  Across the country in 2018 and 2019, striking schoolteachers exposed inexcusable conditions in their public schools from West Virginia, to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago.  We learned about outrageous class sizes; shortages of counselors, school social workers, certified librarians, and school nurses; and salaries so low in some school districts that teachers cannot afford to pay rent on a one bedroom apartment.  Striking teachers have forced us to see the crisis that exists in some entire states along with the financial crisis that prevails across the nation’s urban school districts. Teachers have exposed our society’s failure to create the political will to fund the school districts that serve our poorest children.  Many states have persisted in punishing school districts where child poverty is concentrated and where test scores are low. Only a few states, most recently Massachusetts, with a new funding system, have made the effort significantly to help these districts where the need is greatest.

OPPOSE SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION:  CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION AND VOUCHER GROWTH STARVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NECESSARY RESOURCES AND FAIL TO PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS AND THE INTERESTS OF THE PUBLIC     Disrupters have led us to deny that rampant privatization at public expense is destroying our public schools. However, research confirms that school privatization  through charter school expansion and the growth of vouchers siphons millions of dollars out of the public systems where the majority of our children remain enrolled.

Privatization poses additional problems beyond funding: School choice advocates frame their arguments in libertarian rhetoric about the rights of individuals. Rather, it is only through laws and government regulations that society can protect the rights of students to appropriate services—whatever their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—whether they are English language learners or disabled students with special needs. Private schools to which students carry public vouchers on the other hand, do not protect students’ rights. They can neither be required by law to protect children from religious indoctrination, nor to guarantee a full curriculum, nor even to teach history without bias or promote proven scientific theories. And in state after state the absence of adequate regulation has helped unscrupulous charter school operators steal scarce tax dollars as profits.

It is always worth remembering the warning of the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Kevin Huffman Promotes Entrepreneurial School Agenda in Commentary about Pandemic-Driven School Closings

Kevin Huffman begins his recent Washington Post column with a warning about problems he expects to result from the widespread, coronavirus-driven school closures: “As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well.”

This is pretty harsh. While in many places teachers are going to enormous lengths to create interesting projects to challenge children and keep them engaged, virtual schooling is a challenge. Online efforts school districts are undertaking to meet children’s needs during this long break are likely to be uneven.  Huffman describes Stanford University research on the problems with virtual schooling, problems that are being exacerbated today by inequitable access to technology.

But what Kevin Huffman neglects to tell readers is that his purpose is not entirely to analyze his subject—the ongoing shutdown of schools.  At the same time as he discusses the widespread school closure, he also manages to share the agenda of  his current employer, The City Fund, a relatively new national group that finances the election campaigns of of charter school advocates running for seats on local school boards, supports the rapid expansion of charter schools, and promotes portfolio school reform. And when the Washington Post tells readers that Huffman, “a former education commissioner of Tennessee, is a partner at the City Fund, a national education nonprofit,” the Post neglects to explain The City Fund’s agenda.

Huffman serves on the The City Fund’s staff, along with Chris Barbic who, under Huffman, was brought in to lead the now failed Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), a state school takeover body founded when Huffman was the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch describes Huffman and Barbic’s work in Tennessee: “The State Education department, headed by Disrupter Kevin Huffman, selected a charter school star, Chris Barbic to manage the new ASD.  Barbic had previously led the YES Prep charter chain in Houston. Barbic boldly pledged that the low-performing schools in the ASD would reach the top 25 percent in the state rankings within five years. The ASD opened in 2012 with six schools, and the countdown clock began ticking. The annual cost was estimated at $22 million a year for five years. In year four, Barbic had a heart attack and resigned from his leadership role to join the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  By the end of year five, none of the initial six schools in the ASD had reached the top 25 percent. All but one were still mired in the bottom 5 percent… The ASD experiment failed.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 247)

Huffman’s tenure as Tennessee Commissioner of Education was not smooth. Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s former husband, came to Tennessee following work as an executive at Teach for America. When he resigned from his Tennessee position in 2014, reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press described his tenure as Tennessee’s state commissioner: “Last year, the former Teach for America executive drew complaints from nearly a third of local superintendents who wrote a letter to (Governor) Haslam complaining about Huffman’s leadership style, saying he showed little respect for their views and professional educators generally… (I)n June, 15 conservative GOP lawmakers wrote Haslam to demand Huffman resign or be fired. They listed grievances of school administrators and teachers.”

When Chris Barbic left the Tennessee Achievement School District, he moved to the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Now Barbic and Huffman are both on staff at The City Fund, an organization whose funding comes primarily from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and from Netflix founder, Reed Hastings.

Once one sets Huffman’s recent Washington Post commentary in this context, his recommendations and the sources he quotes are not surprising.  He compliments the “nimble and collaborative” approach of the no-excuses charter school chain, Achievement First and thanks Achievement First for offering to guide the Providence, Rhode Island public schools. Achievement First charter schools employ a strict, no-excuses learning philosophy that demands obedience enforced by punishment, a learning strategy that has been criticized as developmentally nappropriate for young children and contrary to fostering inquiry and curiosity.

During the coronavirus-driven school closures, Huffman encourages public school leaders to join in a virtual, online forum to be hosted by Chiefs for Change, where “school districts can share how they are collaborating with charter schools during this crisis.” Chiefs for Change is the state school superintendents’ organization founded by Jeb Bush to promote entrepreneurial and business-driven school accountability.  Huffman enthuses that charter school-public school collaboration—the ideology behind portfolio school reform—will support children while the schools are closed: “Hopefully, in the coming weeks, those jurisdictions struggling to support online coursework will catch up and find workarounds for students without access to technology, learning from the more entrepreneurial players.”

The City Fund is a promoter of “portfolio school reform” in which school district leadership treats charter schools and traditional public schools alike as though they are investments in a stock portfolio, managing them all, and supposedly promoting their collaboration, and then shedding the bad investments and investing in the successful experiments.  Portfolio school reform has not succeeded in fostering charter and traditional district school collaboration in the places where it has been tried—New York City, and Chicago, for example. The competition built into the model pits one school against another, especially when charters are given the freedom to choose the neighborhoods where they open and compete for students and budgets with the neighborhood public school.

Huffman concludes by recommending that as public schools open next fall, states should demand that schools administer the standardized tests most states have cancelled this spring because their public schools are closed: “(S)ince states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.”

The assumption here is that teachers themselves will not be able to assess children’s needs as they welcome their students back to school next fall.  Huffman is certainly correct that any standardized tests after the months’ long break should not be used to rate and rank the schools the students have been unable to attend during the pandemic.  But to assume that teachers need standardized tests—whose results are always released months after the tests are administered—is ridiculous.  Certified public school teachers and other local school professionals are trained to be able to assess each child’s needs. The best investment when schools reopen will be in small classes where teachers can devote time and attention to helping every child catch up.

Ohio Legislature Allows Continued Growth of EdChoice Vouchers in Schools Where EdChoice Now Operates

Both chambers of the Ohio Legislature came into session on Wednesday to pass an omnibus “coronavirus” bill, which sets the date of the now delayed primary election, waives mandated standardized testing in schools that have been closed during the pandemic emergency, and allows seniors to graduate from high school as long as they were on track to graduate before their school was closed.

The bill also freezes the threatened April 1, 2020, expansion of the number of Ohio’s public school buildings where students can qualify for an EdChoice voucher. The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Karen Kasler reports: “The legislation freezes the number of EdChoice buildings at 517, the same number as this school year—though new rules on criteria for determining whether a building was failing and the students were EdChoice eligible were supposed to have that number soaring to over 1200.”  The number of EdChoice Designated public schools was supposed to have jumped on February 1, but in late January, unable to agree on a plan, members of the legislature gave themselves a two-month extension until April 1.  By acting on Wednesday to freeze the number of voucher-eligible buildings, legislators at least blocked what would have been next week’s massive expansion of the program.

However, the legislature’s EdChoice freeze on the number of eligible buildings will slow but not stop the number of new vouchers students are taking from their local school districts through something called “the school-district deduction.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the  President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Melissa Cropper explains why the emergency bill, passed on Wednesday to stop the number of voucher-eligible schools from exploding to 1,200 on April 1, won’t solve the problem for school districts: “The Ohio (Legislature) took action today to freeze building eligibility for EdChoice performance-based vouchers.  Unfortunately, total voucher recipients will most likely increase, as new students entering kindergarten and high school in eligible buildings are still eligible for EdChoice vouchers, along with any siblings of current voucher recipients. This freeze on building eligibility is a temporary reprieve at best. It is certainly not a fix to the escalating problem we have in Ohio of diverting public funds to unaccountable private schools. School districts like Cleveland Heights-University Heights and other high poverty districts will continue to be disproportionately affected and will continue to suffer budget shortfalls.”

Here are the three primary problems with Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program—three problems the Legislature failed to address on Wednesday, when it imposed a freeze on the number of school buildings designated by the state for the program:

First     Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are currently “performance-based,”meaning that they are available to students who live in the attendance zone of a “Designated EdChoice” public school.  A public schools is designated for EdChoice if Ohio’s state school district report card awards the school a grade of “D” or “F”—a term that denotes a “failing” school during school years 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 in any one of six report card categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers and Prepared for Success. The algorithms which determine the grades are not public, and there is consensus across the state and even in the legislature that the report card system is seriously flawed.  (The state changed standardized tests and created a so-called safe harbor when test scores would not count during three school years: 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17.)

In early February, the Ohio House passed a bill to phase out performance-based EdChoice vouchers and move all students accepting a new voucher to a new Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship, an income-based voucher program with students qualifying if their family’s income is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. In February, the Ohio Senate summarily defeated this proposal.

Second     EdChoice vouchers are funded by a local school district deduction; the Ohio legislature does not fund EdChoice vouchers out of the state budget.  High school students take $6,000 and students in grades K-8 take $4,650 from their local school district’s budget.  These students are counted as though they are enrolled in the school district, and the state counts them in the basic aid it sends to the school district, but in many school districts the amount a student carries away in the voucher is more than the school district receives in per-pupil state aid. To complicate matters further, the state froze state aid to public school districts in the recent budget, which means that school districts did not get any additional money to cover voucher students this year.  And while the state once required that to qualify for a voucher, the student must have previously attended the public school from which he or she is carrying the voucher, in the budget bill last summer, the state changed the rule to permit high school students who have always attended private or religious schools to secure a voucher.  Suddenly, a wave of students who have never attended public schools claimed vouchers.  In all these ways, the state has expanded the number of students receiving vouchers without covering school districts’ financial losses.

The bill which the Ohio House passed in February would have phased out the school district deduction by funding its proposed Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship vouchers directly out of the state budget, leaving only today’s current EdChoice recipients and their siblings funded by school district deductions. It was at least a partial way to protect school districts from future financial losses, but the Senate summarily rejected the House plan.

Third     When the EdChoice program was surreptitiously expanded by members of the state budget conference committee last summer, the number of vouchers grew immediately, and many school districts have already experienced catastrophic financial losses during the current school year. For example, in Cleveland Heights-University Heights—the school district which, of all the 610 Ohio school districts, has been affected most disastrously this year by the EdChoice expansion—the school district published a brochure explaining why the state legislature’s action to expand vouchers had made it necessary to put an operating levy on the March 2020 primary election ballot: “In CH-UH, approximately 1,400 students, 94% of whom have never attended our K-12 public schools, are taking scholarships to attend private schools. This has amounted to an actual loss of $4.2 million for us last fiscal year and an estimated loss of $6.8 million this fiscal year… The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage.” After the pandemic delayed the March primary election, residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will consider the issue in the re-scheduled, vote-by-mail, April 28, primary election.

It had been hoped that the legislature would offer some financial assistance to ameliorate the damage to school districts whose budgets have already been seriously reduced by the unexpected explosive growth of vouchers in this school year.  Various possible ways to hold these school districts harmless were even discussed by legislators during negotiations last fall and in the winter. This week, however, the legislature omitted from the coronavirus omnibus bill any funding to provide relief.

Finally     Vouchers, whether they extract scarce tax revenues from state education budgets or local school district budgets, drain money that is needed to serve the mass of children in public schools.

In Ohio, however, EdChoice vouchers also impose an unjust and disparate burden on the school districts which serve concentrations of poor children. Ohio public policy has punished rather than helping schools in the state’s poorest communities despite that a large body of academic research confirms that aggregate standardized test scores are primarily an indicator of the overall economics of the community. The idea has been to incentivize educators in low-scoring school districts to close achievement gaps by frightening them to work harder and, with vouchers and charter schools, to create escapes for students. The vouchers—along with other punitive policies including state school district takeovers, expansion of charter schools, stiffer graduation requirements, school district report cards, and the third grade guarentee—hurt the most vulnerable school districts instead of offering urgently needed support.

These public policies are imposed on top of extremely unequal state school funding. Ohio legislators are working on a new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan because 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—80 percent—are either capped or on hold-harmless guarantees—getting the same funding they have received for years, and this year the legislature has frozen formula basic aid for all districts at last year’s level because the state says it is short of revenue.

The imposition of punitive policies only further isolates school districts serving poor children, and their isolation further limits their political power to ameliorate the injustices. Hence, in Ohio this week we have a coronavirus omnibus bill that stops the spread of EdChoice vouchers into hundreds more public schools—some of them located in wealthy districts—but keeps the program in place in school districts which already have EdChoice Designated buildings, where more and more students in Kindergarten and high school will continue to be able to secure the vouchers that suck money out of the local school budget.

School officials and parents in most of Ohio’s school districts won’t have to worry, because their local school budgets are not affected.  And state legislators can take a deep breath, because nobody in the current Ohio legislature had enough power to ensure that the state would pay for a fiscally out-of-control program the legislature has forced school districts to underwrite locally.  Surreptitiously last summer, somebody inserted an amendment into the state budget—an amendment which won’t affect state revenues at all. The money flows out of the budgets of some of the state’s most vulnerable school districts into the coffers of private and religious schools, and nobody is really even keeping track of how much money is being diverted out of the  public schools.

This blog has recently covered the crisis created in Ohio by the legislature’s recent expansion of EdChoice vouchers. All of the material in today’s post is documented here, herehereherehere, here, and here.

Betsy DeVos Derides Our System of Public Schools but Today’s School Closures Show Why the System Matters

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the flaws in the thinking of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  As you may remember, back in July, 2017, in a speech at the annual meeting of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council, DeVos declared:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…  ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’…  I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Well, right now we are watching DeVos’s theory play out. For legitimate public health reasons, public schools have been closed—whether for a few weeks or through the end of the school year—and we are relying on families. Right now, in DeVos’s words, “Families are on the front lines of this fight.”

One of the things we are discovering during our pandemic emergency is the significance—the meaning really—of the public education system we have created over the generations. We are being forced to recognize that our society’s systemic provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served.  Our public schools are the primary institution in our society responsible for securing the rights and addressing the needs of all children.

For Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk summarizes what will be some of the inevitable results of the widespread shutdown of public schools: “Education historians and researchers struggled to come up with a historical precedent to this brave new school-less world.  The only certainty, they said, is that the long-term impacts for students will be severe, and most likely long lasting.  Student learning will suffer in general—and longstanding gaps in performance between advantaged and vulnerable students will widen… a combination both of weakened instruction and the other social consequences of the pandemic.”  “While there’s little research specifically on pandemics’ effect on learning, research on adjacent topics—chronic absenteeism, the amount of learning time, online learning—is sobering.”

At the Los Angeles Times, several reporters collaborated to construct a report on challenges not only for students but also for teachers. They describe one fourth-grade teacher who, “is working hard to keep her students learning now that schools are closed. She shares detailed lesson plans on Google Drive, sends messages to families every day and delivers YouTube lectures from her home.  But only three or four of her 28 students accessed their schoolwork last week, she said.  Some don’t have computers and others are without internet access.  One student can only open assignments on her father’s phone when he gets home from work… (T)he reality is really complicated.  As teachers scramble to adjust to an entirely new world of education, they are coming up against significant barriers.  There is uneven access to technology, difficulties communicating with students and parents, and uncertainty about expectations at a time when many families are suffering… (T)eachers are struggling to get their students online—some children had never used the computers at home and many families don’t have internet access. In some cases, children in higher grades are now having to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work and are unable to dedicate time to their own schoolwork….”

While many school districts have invested in Chromebooks the schools are handing out to students to enable them to participate in the programs the same districts are struggling to provide online, many families have no broadband internet access at home. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell provides interactive tables showing the disparities across Ohio’s  610 school districts in the number of families whose homes are wired for high speed internet.  It is not surprising that the three school districts the state seized for state takeover due to low aggregate student test scores are school districts where large percentages of families lack home internet access. In Youngstown the percentage of families without broadband internet access is 33.8 percent, in Lorain 35.5 percent, and in East Cleveland 46.1 percent. Children in families where there is no computer access frequently use the public library when homework assignments require them to use the internet, but, of course, today the public libraries are closed to prevent transmission of the virus.

A brief last week from the Brookings Institution describes how the digital divide is making the current school closures more complicated for the nation’s poorest families: “Among the many challenges—from providing meals for low-income students to finding child care for essential workers—relying on remote learning and online classes also exposes the country’s deep digital divides…  According to 2017 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 3.1 million households (14.1%) with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at home. Though some of these families likely have a wireless subscription, these data plans aren’t sufficient for extended online learning. The transition to digital learning will be especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Broadband adoption rates in Black and Latino or Hispanic households lag behind white households by 6.8% and 3.4% respectively… Our own research shows that as neighborhood poverty rises, the broadband adoption rate falls precipitously…  As part of a recent project focused on the connection between broadband, equity, and health, Brookings Metro heard repeated stories of parents who have used patchwork solutions to overcome broadband barriers: taking their kids to McDonald’s after work for Wi-Fi access, or sitting outside the local library or even a gas station to connect.”

Schools and school teachers meet another urgent need that families cannot meet on their own. Teachers in the most personal way provide support not only for children and adolescents but also for their parents. Parents keep track of their children’s needs, academic progress and social adjustment through feedback from the child about what’s happening at school and also from updates by the teacher. But parents of disabled children count on the school for additional professional support. Public schools now provide services for 7 million students with disabilities under the requirements of the 1975, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the most poignant report I’ve read about the meaning for families of the widespread school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Valerie Strauss describe the unique challenges for school districts trying to provide necessary and appropriate services for special needs students. They report on a parent whose eighth-grade son on the autism spectrum is now missing the services his school provides: “At school, (he) has a huge support team: a vision therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, learning behavioral therapist, and various teachers in the classroom, adaptive special education, and special subjects.”

Meckler and Strauss continue: “The needs of students with disabilities vary. Some students struggle to use computers or need adaptive technology. Others depend on routines for mental stability, or rely on speech and occupational therapists who normally provide services during the school day. Many students have learning disabilities and need lessons to be modified, and some require adult support to focus on and complete their work… Some district websites and programs are not accessible to blind and deaf students.”

I hope we are paying attention today as the widespread closure of public schools highlights the importance of these institutions. What Betsy DeVos fails to understand is that educational justice for children can be realized only systemically.  Our public schools are not perfect, but over the years our society has created a system designed to guarantee services for children who bring myriad needs and who come from families facing inequality of opportunity.  Right now, if we pay attention, we can learn about the ways schools help close opportunity gaps.

Is the Ohio Senate Intent on Running Out the Clock to Enable Vast Voucher Expansion on April 1?

Yesterday a member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Thomas Suddes commented on problems in the Ohio Legislature, but he wasn’t describing merely the delays imposed by the coronavirus, which has stopped the Legislature from meeting and eliminated in-person deliberation and voting. The headline on Suddes’ column in the print edition of the newspaper says: “A Crisis Brings to Light Where Legislature Has Come Up Short.”

Suddes’ column emphasizes Ohio’s current constitutional dilemma.  Last week, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor delayed the primary election, but House Speaker Larry Householder believes: “Legal authority to change the date rests with the Ohio General Assembly—not the courts and not via executive fiat.”  In Ohio, legislators are not permitted to vote except in person, which means that Householder is pushing to have the legislators come into a short session, despite the danger of viral transmission during an in-person meeting, just to set a date for the primary election. But scheduling the primary election is not the only matter unresolved by the Ohio Legislature.

Suddes reminds readers that legislative dysfunction has affected a number of other important matters including public education policy: “As for rescheduling the primary, it’d be easier to have confidence in the General Assembly if it would stop yammering and start legislating. For instance, if you haven’t heard from your school superintendent about the financial mess your district faces thanks to Ohio’s school voucher circus, you haven’t been listening. Legislation to address that is stalled in the legislature”

Here is a short summary of the Legislature’s failure on EdChoice vouchers, a debacle which has created a crisis for Ohio’s school districts and left the Ohio Legislature blocked.  It is a disagreement among Ohio Republicans who dominate both legislative chambers.  Last summer in the final hours of the biennial budget conference committee, someone introduced an amendment to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers to be awarded by the state to students to pay for private school tuition.  EdChoice vouchers are awarded to students in the attendance zones of public schools the state deems failing (EdChoice Designated schools) in one of several categories on a state report card, but nearly everyone agrees that the report card algorithms grossly overstate the faults of Ohio’s public schools. Due to the voucher expansion inserted surreptitiously into the state budget, the number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year unless the Legislature stops the voucher expansion. The Legislature was supposed to address the problem by February 1, 2020, but it awarded itself a two month extension until April 1, 2020—a little more than a week from today.

The problem is complicated by other changes the Legislature made in the budget. While previously a student must have been enrolled in a public school in order to qualify to take a voucher from that school district, now any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice school can qualify for a voucher, even if that student has never attended the public school in question. This year thousands of high school students who have always attended private and religious schools qualified for a voucher to pay their private school tuition. That number will grow rapidly unless the Legislature stops the massive voucher expansion that will go into effect on April 1, 2020.

There is another special problem with the EdChoice vouchers in Ohio. They are funded by a school district deduction; they are not paid for out of the state budget.  Because of the way the Ohio school funding formula works, in a lot of school districts, the vouchers—$4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high school student—are worth more than the state aid for that student.  And to make matters worse, in the same state budget that expanded the vouchers, the Legislature froze state formula aid to school districts at the 2019 level: School districts, now required to award vouchers to thousands of students who have never been enrolled in their school districts, are getting no state per-pupil dollars to cover even part of those students’ vouchers. And once a student has a voucher, he or she is entitled to keep the voucher every year, paid for by the local school district, until the student graduates.

(For a more detailed explanation of the Ohio EdChoice voucher crisis, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

The Ohio House and the Ohio Senate each passed its own plan to mitigate the explosive growth for next school year in the EdChoice voucher program, but the Senate summarily rejected the Ohio House’s plan.  A conference committee met for 10 sessions and heard testimony on the matter from 400 citizens—some representing public school districts facing budgetary collapse, and some representing voucher advocates and private school representatives expecting to enroll more students carrying vouchers.  Then legislative negotiations seemed to die.  All reports suggest there is an impasse.

On March 14, just prior to the now cancelled primary election in which a number of Ohio school districts had property tax levies on the ballot for the purpose of paying for the state-mandated voucher expansion that the state has chosen not to pay for, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell focused on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights proposed levy to raise local taxes by $8 million to cover the district’s $7.1 million voucher costs. Of the state’s 610 school districts, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district is hit the hardest by the expansion of vouchers this year, although O’Donnell covers other school districts in the Cleveland metropolitan area with levies on the ballot to pay for the costs. (All of those levy campaigns are currently unresolved due to the delay of the 2020 Ohio Primary Election.)

O’Donnell highlights a shocking reality: When the Legislature inserted explosive voucher growth as a last minute budget amendment, nobody tabulated the aggregate cost to the state’s 610 local school districts of the voucher expansion paid for by the local school district deduction. O’Donnell reports that State. Rep. Don Jones, currently the chair of the House Education Committee, now says that the state of Ohio cannot possibly afford fully to absorb what appears to be an enormous expense: “(T)he state legislature remains deadlocked over which students will be eligible for vouchers… and who should pay for it, the state or local districts.  Six weeks after giving themselves 60 days to find a resolution, the Ohio House and Senate still have competing proposals, but aren’t meeting to find a compromise. They don’t even have key financial data… a clear accounting of how much vouchers are costing the state and districts this year, or any projections of what the different House and Senate plans would cost in the future… State Rep. Don Jones, chairman of the House Education Committee… also chairman of the joint House and Senate committee that is trying to find a voucher compromise (explains): ‘I don’t like the fact that we’ve got schools like Cleveland Heights (which is) losing $7 million,’ Jones said.  But he cautioned: ‘If I could pick up all those districts… the state would be taking on a huge responsibility. They’re going to be on the books for those kids until they leave in 8th grade or until they graduate.'”

The Ohio Senate’s original plan would more modestly have prevented the voucher increase for next year from growing to all the way to 1,200 and would have frozen the number of EdChoice vouchers available while a legislative committee was established to study problems with the state report cards which determine the state performance ratings by which public schools are designated for EdChoice. But it is known that key state senators are intent on growing the voucher program no matter what.

The Ohio House plan, passed in early February and immediately rejected by the Ohio Senate, would offer at least partial protection for Ohio’s public school districts. The House plan would phase out the current EdChoice Vouchers; end the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card; phase out the school district deduction method of funding; and award all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Only students currently carrying an EdChoice voucher (and their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The proposed House plan, therefore, would leave a significant—but much reduced— burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program. The Ohio House plan, while imperfect, goes a long way to protecting the rights of Ohio’s 1,660,354 public school students to a public school education.

Public school districts losing millions of dollars to vouchers inevitably must increase class sizes; reduce essential staff who work with students—counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses; cut curricular enrichments like school newspapers, music, drama and the visual arts; and eliminate sports programs. The Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools; it does not promise that the state will use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Despite the coronavirus, the Ohio Legislature needs to come back into session this week to protect the state’s public schools by preventing the vast expansion—scheduled to take place on April 1, 2020—of EdChoice vouchers. And the members of the Legislature ought to consider their constitutional responsibility for public education by passing at least the essential components of the House plan: The Legislature needs to stop basing vouchers on the state report cards and to phase out the school district deduction by funding new vouchers through the state budget. Districts whose budgets were gouged during the current school year by explosive growth in EdChoice vouchers also need retroactive assistance.

Unless Ohio’s legislators find a way this week to address the EdChoice voucher crisis, one has to assume that the pro-voucher ideologues in the Ohio Senate intend to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to allow—on April 1, 2020— the total number of Ohio’s EdChoice Designated public schools to grow to 1,200.

No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(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. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”