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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political economist Gordon Lafer conducted a major study last spring on the devastating impact of charter schools on California’s public school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lafer explains what most people don’t understand about their public school district: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

Lafer details the costs public school districts cannot immediately cut when students leave for charter schools: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portfolio School Governance Creates Unstable Charter Sector with Too Many School Closures

In an important brief from the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Kevin Welner define “portfolio school reform”—a school district governance theory which originated at the Center on Reinventing Public Education: “A key, unifying element is the call for many neighborhood schools to be transformed into privately managed charter schools… The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it.  As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization.”

Peter Greene recently suggested one of the inevitable implications of portfolio school reform: “(G)iven the portfolio emphasis on continually closing bottom-ranked schools, you can think of the portfolio model as trying to fire your way to excellence on the institutional scale.” It’s all about closing schools.

Chicago was an early example of portfolio school governance, which now dominates the school districts in a number of big cities. Because of a study last year by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and a book by University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing, we’ve finally begun paying attention to the resulting closure of too many traditional neighborhood schools.  In Chicago the researchers have described widespread community grieving for public schools that were once central in the lives of generations of families.

School closure is also characteristic of charter schools. A school district committed to shedding its poorest investments—its so-called “failing” schools—will be shutting down the low-performing or poorly managed charter schools as well.  The underlying assumption is that the parent-choosers buying into a market approach will just accept the notion of the closure of “failing” charters because it’s all part of the cycle of school improvement.

Parents of students in charter schools, however, are not calmly accepting the closure of their schools.  Why should they?  Like other parents, charter school parents are looking for stability when they choose a setting for their child’s education. Here are just three examples of churn and disruption as charters are shut down in districts and states dominated by the theory of portfolio governance.

Washington D.C. — At the end of January in the Washington Post, Perry Stein profiled a mother who, two years ago, enrolled a child in the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High.  Then last March the District of Columbia’s board that oversees charter schools, “voted to shutter the campus because of mismanaged finances.”  This school year, the mother enrolled her daughter in National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High: “Then, it happened again: The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted last week to shut down National Collegiate at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year because of low performance.”

Stein reports a maelstrom of charter school closures in the nation’s capital: “National Collegiate is one of three public charter schools the board in recent weeks voted to close because of poor performance. Democracy Prep Congress Heights and City Arts and Prep are expected to close at the end of this academic year, followed a year later by National Collegiate… One of the District’s oldest and most prominent charter networks—Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy—announced last week that it would close its middle school campus in Columbia Heights for financial reasons.  Its two high schools will merge on a single campus. The closures—which leave more than 1,500 students scrambling for seats in other schools—highlight the turmoil that befalls children when the lights are permanently turned off in their classrooms. Students are often forced to leave behind friends and teachers they have grown up with.  Parents are often stuck navigating the lottery that is used to place students—and they must do it when their children are in the middle of their academic career, when fewer slots are available.”

Detroit — Last November for ChalkbeatKoby Levin described the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea is that the marketplace will create an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders. “But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.”

ArizonaArizona Republic reporter, Craig Harris describes an entire sector in precarious financial straits: “Following the abrupt closure of at least three Arizona charter schools over the past year, a new report concludes more than 100 of the state’s charters are in danger of closing because of excessive debt and other financial troubles.  It’s a ‘near certainty’ that more than 50 of the state’s 544 charter schools will close in the near future, according to the report by the Grand Canyon Institute… As a whole, Arizona’s 544 charter schools owe more to creditors than they’re worth as businesses contracted with the state to educate kindergarten to 12th-grade students. ‘Like any business, an overleveraged charter is financially vulnerable and could fail if it then suffers an income loss.’ the report states.”

In dry financial terms, the Grand Canyon Institute warns: “From FY 2014 – FY 2018, the long-term, lease-adjusted debt held by Arizona’s charter sector consistently exceeded the current depreciated value of its property and assets.  On the whole, the sector owes more than it is worth.  A business property or homeowner in this position is deemed to be underwater on their debt.  Like any business, an overleveraged charter is financially vulnerable and could fail if it then suffers an income loss. Ten percent of charter sites are in significant financial distress with closure a near certainty due to excessive debt and poor underlying financials. Another 10 percent are at risk of closure…  Increasingly, charter schools appear to be competing amongst themselves for students as the charter industry is consolidating.  From FY 2014 – FY 2017, 60 percent of growth in student enrollment, known as Average Daily Membership (ADM), was captured by 10 charter companies, while 35 percent of charter companies experienced losses in their ADM during the same period.  Government tax-free bonds and federal charter credit enhancements, which were designed to allow charter holders to acquire educational assets have enabled this overleveraging.”

In his news report, Harris interprets Grand Canyon Institute’s warning in plainer language: “The report’s authors examined financial records including loan documents and school audits submitted to the state for all Arizona charter schools between fiscal 2014 to 2017.  The Grand Canyon Institute found:

  • “Charter schools have $2.56 billion in debt, while their property and assets are valued at $1.4 billion.
  • “The state’s charter market holds 33 percent of all public school debt while educating just 16 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students.
  • “Arizona charter schools primarily borrow for buildings and classrooms using what are deemed as ‘junk bonds’ with high-interest rates guaranteed by projected enrollment growth.  If the growth does not occur, charters have to spend more on mortgage payments and less in the classroom.”

The charter sectors in Washington, D.C., Detroit and the state of Arizona all demonstrate widespread instability. Portfolio school district governance theory imagines quality control through the ongoing shedding of the failing investments in the portfolio. Through so-called “creative disruption,” it’s proponents promise it will stimulate a spiral of school improvement based on the survival of the fittest schools. But by its very definition, portfolio school governance eliminates one of the key features parents look for in a school: stability.

Long-Time School Privatizer, Cory Booker Enters 2020 Race as Democratic Presidential Contender

Public education policy is not usually something on which Presidential candidates have a solid record. They make their cases on foreign, economic, and environmental policy. The future of public schools makes it into the Party platforms but rarely becomes a candidate’s make-or-break issue.

However, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who, last Friday, declared himself a Democratic candidate for President in 2020, has a long record of projects that threaten public education.  Cory Booker has been a leader in the effort to privatize public education for nearly two decades.

Most recently as mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006-2013, he collaborated with New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie on an idea for a charter school transformation for the city’s schools. In her 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff summarizes the Booker-Christie scheme: “One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’ The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data and accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.” (The Prize, pp. 20-21) Booker was the salesman who enticed Mark Zuckerberg to pay for it all.  The plan was launched in celebrity fashion when Zuckerberg presented a check for $100 million to Christie and Booker on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Even as Russakoff traces the eventual four-year failure of their scheme, her book’s topic is less about school reform than about the hubris of Cory Booker and the cruel arrogance of Chris Christie. She concludes: “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national ‘proof point’ in Newark. There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.” (The Prize, pp. 209-201)

The failed Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg experiment in Newark was not, however, Cory Booker’s first venture in promoting himself by collaborating with school privatizers. Back in 2002, Booker made a name for himself as an advocate for the nation’s first city-wide private school tuition voucher program, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and underwritten by the far-right Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Here is what The Black Commentator‘s Glen Ford wrote about Cory Booker back in the spring of 2002, when Booker made his first (unsuccessful) bid to become mayor of Newark: “The billionaires who fund the American Hard Right are salivating over the prospect of seizing control of City Hall in Newark, New Jersey, May 14. They have found their champion: Cory Booker, Black mayoral candidate from the city’s Central Ward, a cynical pretender who attempts to position himself as the common people’s defender while locked in the deep embrace of institutes and foundations that bankroll virtually every assault on social and economic justice in America…  Booker owes his growing national prominence to this crowd…. Booker’s anointment as a prince in the Hard Right pantheon is based on his support of public vouchers for private schools. This ‘movement,’ the creation of right-wing paymasters like the Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, and the Walton Family Foundation, Bentonville, Arkansas, hopes to drive a wedge between urban Blacks and the teachers unions… Booker is the Right’s eager ally.”

By 2002, the far-right Bradley Foundation had underwritten a new organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), and Cory Booker had joined its board. Ford describes the BAEO: “The Black Alliance for Educational Options has no life independent of Bradley and… the Walton Foundation…. In a December 2001 report… People for the American Way (PFAW) asked, rhetorically, is the BAEO a ‘Community Voice or Captive of the Right?'”

BAEO was founded by Dr. Howard Fuller, the father of the Milwaukee Voucher Program. Ford continues: “By PFAW’s estimate, Fuller’s BAEO has received $1.7 million from Bradley since June of 2001… The Walton Foundation came up with $900,000 in seed money. Booker… journeyed to Milwaukee to attend a BAEO ‘symposium’ subsidized by $125,000 from Bradley and hosted by Fuller’s Bradley-funded Institute for the Transformation of Learning….”

Back in 2002, Ford summarized the long political strategy of the school privatizers who launched the Milwaukee voucher program: “Although the overwhelming majority of the students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher ‘choice’ program are minorities… critics universally view it as a stalking horse to eventually subsidize all private schools everywhere. In Milwaukee and the country at large, the vast bulk of private school students are white, from above-average income families.  If these schools were subsidized, thus making them more attractive and accessible to the entire universe of voting families, the fate of public education would be sealed. (Teachers unions would also become an endangered species in the process—the immediate political goal of the right.)”

Why would the Bradley Foundation invest so much in courting Cory Booker? Ford explains:  “Perhaps it is because they have no other choice. The nation’s big cities are largely Black and brown and, without legitimacy among African American voters, the Right will get nowhere in its bid to break what’s left of the Democratic Party’s urban coalition.”

Booker’s involvement with voucher supporters has also been quite recent including work with Betsy DeVos and her pet cause, the American Federation for Children.  Last week, Chalkbeat‘s Patrick Wall and Matt Barnum reported: “Booker served with DeVos on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice (now known as the American Federation for Children Growth Fund). He also spoke at gatherings of the American Federation for Children, an organization DeVos chaired, in 2012 and again in 2016.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate for President in 2020, doesn’t talk much today about his involvement with the Black Alliance for Educational Options or his support for private school tuition vouchers in Milwaukee.  Neither does he talk about the more recent, misguided Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg charter school initiative in Newark or other work with organizations whose mission is the promotion of a privatized education marketplace.

As Booker runs for President in 2020, however, I hope people everywhere will demand to know how he plans to support the public schoolteachers who have been striking all year because they are disgusted with the despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay that have resulted from a decade of tax cuts along with the sucking away of public school funding to privatized vouchers and charters.

The future of public education is at stake, and Cory Booker’s willingness over the years to support all forms of school privatization should worry voters.