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.

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.

Coronavirus Forces Us to Notice the Essential Role of Public Schools

Maybe someday we’ll all come to agree that we were crazy—for two decades after No Child Left Behind— to accept school closure as a “turnaround strategy” for so-called “failing” (low-scoring) public schools. Certainly the coronavirus pandemic, when public schools are being shut down to protect the public health, ought to be a wake-up call.  While we cannot question the public health experts who are prescribing such a radical step, the widespread closure of public schools provides an occasion to examine the meaning of public education across today’s America.

Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist, recently examined the widespread, permanent, closure of public schools in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At the end of the 2013 school year, Chicago Public Schools shut down 50 so-called “failing” schools, many of them on the South and West Sides. Ewing’s focus is broader than this week’s lesson, but she does examine the essential role of public schools as core social institutions that anchor neighborhoods: “Judith Butler argues that when a community faces the loss of a place, that loss can become so insurmountable that it becomes part of the community’s own self-definition… The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

This week’s school closures—universal across many states—are only temporary, though parents and teachers cannot anticipate how long the shutdown will last.  But although schools are closed only temporarily, the closures are disruptive and disorienting.  Valerie Strauss presents tweets, some of them funny, from teachers trying to create online lessons and from lucky parents trying to work at home—two parents doing two jobs from home while their children try to study online—all on one computer.

But for society’s most vulnerable families, school may have a very different meaning. Back in 2003, just as school turnarounds—including school closure—were being prescribed as part of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, Pedro Noguera, an education sociologist (then at NYU, now at UCLA) argued that public schools are indispensable institutions: “Despite the severity of the conditions present in many urban schools, and despite the intractability of the problems they face, these deeply flawed institutions continue to serve millions of children throughout the United States. In fact, the largest school districts in the nation are classified as ‘urban’ and they serve nearly one-third of school-aged children… In a profound demonstration of faith, millions of parents voluntarily take their children each day to the very schools that have been described as ‘desperate hell holes.’… At a minimum, they may enroll their sons and daughters because they know that even at a failing public school their children will have access to a warm meal and adult supervision while they are there…  In economically depressed inner-city communities… public schools play a vital role in supporting low-income families. Even when other neighborhood services, including banks, retail stores, libraries and other public services do not exist, are shut down, or are abandoned, public schools remain. They are neighborhood constants… because they have a relatively stable source of funding, ensured by the legal mandate to educate children.”  (City Schools and the American Dream, pp. 4-6)

This past week, whether or not to close the public schools became a major dilemma and in some places, a political controversy. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the extreme vulnerability of families in places where the public school is the primary source of economic and social support.

The Chicago Sun-TimesNader Issa explains why the decision to close schools for public health reasons was so complicated and difficult in Chicago: “Families in low-income and under-resourced communities rely on schools for breakfast, lunch and daycare for their children.  Some of these families have technology deficits at home.  Students with complex needs in special education programs depend on the care of trained professionals.  Parents who work hourly or are self-employed might not be able to afford taking time off work to care for their young children. ‘In some of these communities, if we take away a school—the only public good we still offer them—then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,’ said Victoria Trinder, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor and urban elementary education program coordinator… It shouldn’t take a pandemic for policymakers to realize they need to help under-resourced communities and schools.  But the fact remains that it’s those exact hardships that mean the decision to shut down Chicago schools would undoubtedly need to be accompanied by serious social service efforts to minimize the burden on underserved communities—help that even in normal circumstances is insufficient.”

Issa profiles the special challenges for parents of children at Vaughn Occupational, a high school for special education students: “Given Vaughn students’ complex needs, including indispensable assistance from classroom aides, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to provide instruction online… That’s especially true district-wide with CPS’ more than 50,000 special education students, and others who might not have computer or internet access at home.” A parent of an autistic student explains the challenges for students like her son and for their families: “They have really high needs that can be met at schools but not at their neighbor’s house.”

Examining the decision that faced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio, the NY Times Editorial Board wonders, “What happens when working people are so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—that it puts the whole city at risk?”

As in Chicago, the NYC public schools are a primary support for the city’s most vulnerable families: “(N)early one million households in the city don’t have internet access, making online learning difficult… Of the more than one million students in New York’s roughly 1,700 schools, about 750,000 live at or below the poverty line. These children count on meals and critical services from the schools. About one in every 10 students is homeless.”

Public schools, explains the Editorial Board, are essential for more than the families whose children are enrolled: “New Yorkers should pause to absorb one important insight from the fact that the mayor and governor regarded the public schools as, essentially, the vital day care center for city workers. New York’s schools are a critical support network for the city’s children and those children’s parents are a critical support network for the city. This is both a tribute to the importance of the school system and to the hard-working New Yorkers who hold the city together, and a jarring indictment of how little support these New Yorkers receive in turn…. Like health care workers, transit employees, police officers, firefighters, E.M.S. employees, sanitation workers and other essential employees also have children in the public schools. Others, including low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck in the service industries, could not only be forced to stay home now to care for their children, but could lose their jobs as a result.”

“That is a lesson for wealthier New Yorkers in particular to consider as they work from home in the weeks ahead, perhaps ordering groceries to be delivered, counting on the hospital to be open should hey need it. A system that has left the working poor so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—turns out to have created tremendous vulnerability for society as a whole.”

With Voucher Impasse, Ohio Legislature Abrogates It’s Constitutional Responsibility for Our Public Schools

Ohio’s House and Senate are stuck. They even seem to have stopped arguing about their two different plans to end a public school crisis caused by the surreptitious expansion last summer (in the conference committee on the state budget) of the EdChoice school voucher program. On February 1st, students were due to have begun registering for a whole new round of vouchers for next year, with eligibility expanded to a whole new group of students, but in late January the Senate created one plan to reshape the program and the House designed another plan. The Legislature gave itself two months—until April 1— to work out the differences. But here we are in mid-March without any progress toward a compromise.  And neither plan would really do what is necessary to support the school districts the state legislature has trapped in this crisis.

When Ohio state senators describe the problem, they seem to forget about the 1,660,354 students enrolled in the state’s public schools. The senators’ comments betray their sympathy with parents who would like an EdChoice voucher to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.  “Why should these parents have to wait until the first of April to begin applying?” ask the state senators. “Why should they be left without being able to make plans?”  Ohio’s state senators justify their support of vouchers with a “money should follow the child” theory consistent with Betsy DeVos’s contention that we need to worry about each child and each family and cease focusing on the system.

Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert, explains the central flaw in this sort of thinking: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choice are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations. The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the… preferred goods and services… of that community within the constraints of the law.  Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now.  Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, p. 30)

Maybe it is easier for the members of Ohio’s legislature not to worry so much about the current crisis across the state’s school districts because In Ohio, the EdChoice voucher program at the center of the massive voucher mess is not funded directly by the state. Conveniently the Legislature created a school district deduction, and school districts, which have already watched money flow out of their schools this year are faced with catastrophic local budget losses if the program expands on April 1.  If the Legislature does nothing, the EdChoice vouchers will multiply in a way that will deplete the local budgets of two-thirds of Ohio’s 610 school districts. Inequity will also become a more serious problem, because the districts hurt the worst are the ones that serve many of the state’s poorest children.

Bruce Baker is a national school finance expert.  Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus school funding expert who leads the Ohio Education Policy Institute, is extremely concerned about the implications of vouchers in our state.  In January, Fleeter reviewed changes in the EdChoice voucher program and wrote the clearest explanation I’ve read of a very confusing set of issues.  Fleeter writes On the Money, a regular (but paywalled) report for the Columbus Hannah News Service. Recently the Delphos School District reposted Fleeter’s January report on the potential implications of the EdChoice voucher expansion where we can all read it. While Fleeter’s report is now two months old, not a thing has changed as the Ohio Legislature argues, dithers, and delays, despite ten long formal hearings where legislators heard testimony from 400 concerned citizens.

The EdChoice program has grown rapidly—from 3,100 students in 2006 to nearly 30,000 this school year.  Fleeter explains that the EdChoice voucher program counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in their assigned local neighborhood school. Then, the full voucher amount ($4,650 for each student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for each high school student) is deducted from the state aid that the district is slated to receive and turned into a voucher to pay private school tuition: “The deduction funding method has engendered frequent complaints… because the state aid received by the district as a result of including a voucher student is typically less than the amount that is deducted.”  Fleeter adds that during this school year, the deduction method of funding EdChoice vouchers has become particularly threatening for school districts under the biennial budget passed last summer because the budget froze state aid for schools at last year’s amount:  “As a result, any increase in the number of voucher students in FY20 or FY21 as compared to FY 19 means that the district will simply lose the entire additional voucher deduction amount. Thus, school districts that experience an increase in voucher use by resident students in FY 20 are not really guaranteed FY19 funding levels as HB166 (the budget bill) intended.”

Fleeter identifies two additional problems that have driven the catastrophic voucher crisis across Ohio’s school districts this winter.

EdChoice vouchers were supposedly created to give students an escape if they attend a so-called “failing” school.  The first problem with the EdChoice vouchers is that the Legislature has changed the criteria for designating an underperforming school. To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of a school deemed “underperforming” by the state. That number has rapidly grown from 255 schools last school year, to 517 this school year. Next year, if the Legislature does nothing by April 1, 2020, over 1,200 buildings will be EdChoice Designated Schools.

Fleeter explains that all this is based on having just one “failing” state report card grade during a three year period in any of a number of state report card rating categories.  The state report card ratings are based on convoluted algorithms and their validity questionable.  Here are the ratings that determine EdChoice designation—a D or F grade Overall—an F in Value-Added—a Performance Index in the bottom 10 percent of buildings—a four-year graduation rate of D or F—a K-3 Literacy Grade of D or F—or the building is under an Academic Distress Commission.  “(A) building is now EdChoice eligible if it meets any one of the above listed criteria… (T)he inclusion of the K-3 Literacy criteria is… problematic because this measure is widely considered to be seriously flawed.”   And the state has complicated the qualification criteria further by leaving out data from school years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, because a new standardized test had been introduced.  This year schools are being judged on grades the state awarded in the 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years.  Fleeter argues: “The use of data that is 6 years out-of-date is by itself inappropriate…. (It) also means that any improvement shown by districts as they adjusted to the new assessments is also not considered.”

Second, the budget passed last summer radically expanded the number of students eligible to qualify for a voucher. Fleeter explains that before this school year, “(T)he EdChoice voucher program has required that in order to qualify for a voucher the student must have attended an EdChoice eligible public school in the preceding year… (T)he only exception… has been for Kindergarten students for whom Kindergarten is (obviously) their first year in school… However, beginning (this school year), high school students who have never attended a public school are now eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private high school.” In one school year, the number of applications by high school students for an EdChoice Voucher has grown by 75 percent. “Not only has the elimination of the requirement that high school students had to have been in a qualifying public school in the prior year resulted in an increase in EdChoice vouchers, it is providing these vouchers to families who already have their children in private schools… This is not expansion of educational choice to those without the means to exercise it themselves; it is merely a handout to families who have already shown they can do it themselves.” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter summarizes: “Due to ill-considered changes to the criteria for designating schools as ‘underperforming,’ an unprecedented change in the eligibility criteria for private high school students that undermines the only defensible argument of the EdChoice program itself, and an apparent failure to understand the impact of freezing the school funding formula in the current biennium, Ohio policymakers have created a situation where two thirds of the state’s districts and schools… stand to be EdChoice eligible… (next school year) and the districts themselves—rather than the state—will be left paying for these modifications.”

Fleeter grew up in the same school district where I currently live and where my children were educated—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools— an inner-ring suburban school district in Cleveland.  In the report, Fleeter cites the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools as an example of the EdChoice Voucher crisis this year: “The total number of voucher applications in Cleveland Heights increased from 890 in FY 19 (last school year) to 1414 in FY 20 (this school year). Sixty-five percent of these applications were high school students.  However, virtually all of these students (both K-8 and high school) attend… religiously affiliated schools…. Very few—if any—of these students have ever attended one of the public schools in this school district….”

Next Tuesday, in the March 17, Ohio primary election, the citizens of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will vote on a local school levy.  In January at a public meeting, members of the school board explained the necessity of putting a local property tax levy on the ballot at this time: “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. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy is on the ballot to pay for vouchers for a few and to try to protect services for the many—the 5,136 students enrolled in our community’s public schools. The levy committee’s literature explains that if the levy fails, the “Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools will be forced to make drastic cuts to offset lost state funding, which could include: closing school buildings, increasing student/teacher ratio, decreasing 1-on-1 instruction, canceling proven programs, and limiting sports, arts, music and transportation. These cuts will hurt every student in every classroom.”

School Privatizers and Education Disrupters Keep Reinventing Themselves

For over a year, I have listened to parents and school board members from Indianapolis complaining about a group called The City Fund, which is somehow connected to something called The Mind Trust, and which has been investing in the expansion of charter schools. But the organization has managed to emerge relatively quietly in the past couple of years without a lot of coverage in the press.

The California research blogger, Tom Ultican, fills in the history of an organization that has only recently publicly emerged: “Until February of 2020, the secretive City Fund did not even have a web site.  On July 31, 2018, City Fund Managing Partner, Neerav Kingsland, took to his blog and made public The City Fund—a new nonprofit—and named its founding staff.”

According to that new website, the organization’s partners include Kingsland himself, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. Others include Chris Barbic, who founded Yes Prep Charter Schools and was the the founding superintendent of the Tennessee School Achievement District, which was supposed to turnaround so-called failing schools but which now plans to return all 30 schools currently under its jurisdiction to their local school boards by 2022.  Also from Tennessee is Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s former state education commissioner, now fired. Partners also include three former leaders of Indianapolis’s The Mind Trust—David Harris, Kameelah Shaheed-Dalio, and Ken Bubp; and two leaders from Education Cities—Ethan Gray, and Jessica Pena.  Finally two partners are from New Jersey—Gabrielle Wyatt formerly of Civic Builders and Kevin Shafer, the chief innovation officer for the Camden Public Schools.

Diane Ravitch traces the connections among some of these organization in her new book, Slaying Goliath: “Organizations funded by billionaires to promote disruption and privatization pop up like mushrooms, with a similar cast of players migrating from one group to another.  The money available to sustain them is seemingly endless. Education Cities, Inc. is a billionaire-funded organization promoting charters in thirty cities. It grew out of the Mind Trust, which began as a charter advocacy group in Indianapolis. The Mind Trust has been so effective in Indianapolis that the survival of public schools hangs in the balance as charter schools expand and public schools close.  Education Cities has morphed into The City Fund, whose purpose is to spread the idea of ‘portfolio districts’ to targeted cities; it injects money into local elections to help charter proponents gain control by outspending supporters of public schools.”  (Slaying Goliath, p. 44)

The City Fund’s staff are mostly relatively young social entrepreneurs, people who support public school disruption and privatization as a replacement for government. Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum explains: “The newest major player in school reform has already issued more than $110 million in grants to support the growth of charter and charter-like schools across the U.S. The City Fund’s spending, detailed on a new website, means the organization has quickly become one of the country’s largest K-12 education grantmakers.  The money has gone to organizations in more than a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Denver, Memphis, and Oakland… The City Fund’s strategy is to grow the number of schools, including charters, run by nonprofits rather than traditional school boards… Overall, The City Fund says it has raised $225 million, largely from Netflix founder Reed Hastings and Texas philanthropist John Arnold… The organization has also created a political arm, Public School Allies, which has raised $15 million from Hastings and Arnold to support officials vying for state and local office.”  Hastings and Arnold are not only the City Fund’s primary funders, but they also make up two of the organization’s three board members.

Barnum quotes Reed Hastings, describing The City Fund’s mission: “Let’s, year by year, expand the nonprofit school sector… We know the school district is probably not going to like it, but we’re not against them. We’re for good schools, period.  If there’s a very high-performing school district school, let’s keep it.  But the low-performing school district public school—let’s have a nonprofit public school take it over.”

Hastings is describing what’s known as “portfolio school reform” and sure enough, according to Barnum, one of the national organizations, which has received an $875,000 grant from The City Fund, is the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, the primarily Gates-funded think tank that originated the theory that school districts should manage their schools—traditional district and charter schools alike—like a stock portfolio by investing in successful schools and shedding the weaker schools.  Renaissance 2010, the Arne Duncan led-effort in Chicago, was the prototype, where so-called failing schools were shut down as new charter schools were established. The result, after a nearly decade-long experiment, was the catastrophic closure of 50 traditional schools at the end of the 2013 school year, a move that undermined neighborhoods and resulted in widespread community grieving (see here and here.)

Barnum describes The City Fund’s investment in the portfolio model of school reform: “New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis’ central school district have adopted many elements of that structure, and The City Fund has given to groups in each.  The Denver nonprofit RootEd netted a $21 million grant…  The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, previously run by City Fund partner David Harris, got $18 million.  New Schools for New Orleans, previously run by City Fund partner Neerav Kingsland, won $7 million… In Oakland, The City Fund has given to a local parent group (Oakland Reach), a charter network (Education for Change), and an education focused nonprofit (Educate 78).  In Nashville, it’s backed charter schools and networks, including KIPP Nashville, Nashville Classical Charter, RePublic Schools, and Valor Collegiate. The City Fund has also made large grants to nonprofits in Atlanta ($2.75 million to redefinEd); Baton Rouge ($13.49 million to New Schools for Baton Rouge); Memphis ($5 million to the Memphis Education Fund); Newark ($5.33 million to the New Jersey Children’s Foundation); St. Louis ($5.5 million to The Opportunity Trust); and San Antonio ($4.98 million to City Education Partners.”)

One of the The City Fund’s founding staff partners, Gary Borden no longer appears on the organization’s staff list. Tom Ultican explains, however, that Borden remains closely connected: “Borden is now Managing Director of Public School Allies, the 501c4 organization established by The City Fund to administer their political influence campaign… For last November’s elections in Louisiana, Borden sent $1,500,000 to Louisiana Federation of Children, which also received large contributions from California billionaire William Oberndorf, Alice Walton and Jim Walton. These funds were used for independent expenditures supporting choice-friendly candidates: five for the state school board and 20 for the state legislature… In the spring of 2019, Borden sent $60,000 to the Newark group, Great Schools for All PAC in support of the charter friendly school board candidates of the Moving Newark Forward slate.  All three won handily….”

Matt Barnum describes The City Fund’s justification for trying to expand privately operated charter schools: “The key argument made by The City Fund is a straightforward one…. The organization’s new website cites evidence that nonprofit charter schools in urban areas outperform district schools, that district students aren’t hurt academically by charter school expansion, and that in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where charter schools have rapidly grown, overall student performance has improved… And the City Fund omits other research that is less favorable to its approach, including a study of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, in which charter operators attempted to turn around struggling schools…. The initiative, led by Chris Barbic, now a City Fund partner, did not produce gains in student achievement.”

There is a whole other set of research—ignored by school privatizers like the City Fund’s board members and staff—demonstrating catastrophic fiscal damage for public school districts when money is sucked out by a growing charter school sector. The clearest example is in Oakland, where political economist Gordon Lafer traces the loss of $57.3 million every year from the public school district whose traditional schools have been progressively undermined: “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.”