Trying to Sort Out All the Concerns about Charters and Vouchers

After today, this blog will take a two week summer break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 11.

I recently spent far too much time slogging through the over 80 pages of the new report on Charter Management Organizations from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Stanford CREDO is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. The study compares test score gains in four types of charter schools—the independent, stand-alone, charters; the charters run by Charter Management Organizations (that operate “at least three separate charter schools and the CMO is the charter holder for each school”); what CREDO calls Vendor Operated Schools (organizations which operate “at least three separate charter schools, but do not hold the charter for any school they serve”); and finally what CREDO calls hybrids (that “have aspects of both a CMO and a VOS).  After trying to sort through all these definitions plus the over 70 pages of data, I was underwhelmed by the conclusions: that students in independent charters have lower achievement, overall, than those that are part of a network; that charter quality varies by networks; that even though there is a range of CMO quality, “larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students”; that CMOs which directly operate their schools seem to do better than VOSs that bring in a vendor to manage the charters; that there is a need for better oversight by authorizers; that there is huge variation by state based on the kind of oversight the state provides; and that virtual-online charters don’t work for most students.

Although I certainly don’t recommend that you look at CREDO’s new report, you will likely find Jeff Bryant’s response to it as refreshing as I did.  While CREDO seeks to distinguish CMOs from VOSs from Hybrids from Independents, Bryant begins with a different distinction, necessary because he believes there is a lot of confusion about charter schools: “Quick,” he asks, “is this school a nonprofit or for-profit?”  His question is followed by this profile of a chain of charter schools:

“In the most recent financial filings available, the couple who run the chain of 18 schools pay themselves $315,000 a year plus $39,000 in benefits. The school also employs their daughters, their son, and even a sister living in the Czech Republic. Families who enroll their children in the schools are asked to contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. They also must pay a $300 security deposit, purchase some books, and pay for school activities that would normally be provided free at a public school. The school chain contracts its operations to a management company, also owned by the same couple.  In the most recent financial accounting available, the management firm received $4,711,699 for leased employee costs and $1,766,000 for management. Nearly $60 million total was charged to the management corporation to provide services to the schools.  After 2009, the owners made a legal change that made it possible to hide from the public much of the school’s financials, including their salaries and expenses. But what we do know is that between 2012 and 2015 administrative costs of the schools were some of the highest in Arizona, where most of the schools are located….”

Bryant continues: “If you guessed that the school in question… is a for-profit charter, you’re wrong.  The charter described is the BASIS charter chain….  Although BASIS is technically a nonprofit, and the CREDO study labels it as such, this organization operates as ruthlessly and (is as) self-serving as any profit-hungry private enterprise….”  Bryant goes on to examine some other chains of charter schools to make his point that slicing and dicing and analyzing the operation of various types of charter schools isn’t really very helpful. In all kinds of privately managed schools there is self-serving and fraud that nobody seems to be able to get under control.

How to sort out the claims about school choice—Betsy DeVos’s one favorite subject?  This blog will take a two-week summer break after today, but if you want to clarify your thinking about school choice—charter schools and the various forms of vouchers—here is some important material to read or review.

  • Start with yesterday’s analysis by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a critique of charter schools that appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Burris reminds readers that a year ago the NAACP, our nation’s oldest civil rights group, passed a national resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held accountable like other public schools, until funds stop being diverted from the public schools that serve the majority of our children, until expulsions from charters are stopped because publicly funded schools are supposed to serve all children, and until charters stop increasing segregation. Burris concludes that the charter sector has not even made a pretense of trying to address any of these very legitimate concerns. Charters remain unaccountable—more like businesses than public institutions, but, “Unlike businesses that start up with personal investment, in the case of charters, the risk is assumed by the taxpayers… (P)romised accountability is often st aside.”  Burris examines the other concerns in the NAACP’s resolution and concludes: “It has been nearly a year since the NAACP passed its resolution… There is little evidence, however, that the charter sector has taken the NAACP’s concerns to heart.”
  • You might want to read Erica Green’s recent NY Times piece on the charter school Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, founded in Grand Rapids—the West Michigan Aviation Academy. This school equips at least some of its students with pilots’ licenses at graduation. But there’s a catch: Dick DeVos’s Aviation Academy depends on enormous financial support and fund raising by Dick and Betsy DeVos in addition to the public school dollars it receives from the state of Michigan: “Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding… But… (the public funds do) not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum… The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.”
  • Or consider Mikhail Zinshteyn’s report for California’s EdSource, Oakland Charters More Likely to Enroll Higher-Performing Students than District Schools. How is it that, while charter schools are always prohibited from using admissions tests or other screens to select their students, they somehow end up enrolling students who arrive at the school door already better prepared than the students who attend traditional public schools in the district in which in which they are located?  Zinshteyn explains that Oakland’s charters actually do enroll similar levels of low-income students and English learners, but they also enroll far fewer students who arrive after the school year has begun and significantly fewer students with disabilities.  Both groups of students are more likely to be academically behind.
  • While the CREDO study and the Oakland study review charter school quality based on the comparison of test scores between traditional public schools and charter schools, there have been several important studies in the past year that examine the impact of school choice on the entire educational ecosystem in particular metropolitan areas where the majority of students, with very few exceptions, attend traditional public schools: Gordon Lafer’s study on Los Angeles (see this blog’s coverage here), Roosevelt University’s study on Chicago (see this blog’s coverage here), and Bruce Baker’s in depth study of parasitic charter schools published by the Economic Policy Institute (see this blog’s coverage here).  All of this in-depth research points to collateral damage for big-city public schools and school districts—including school closures, the under-supply of schools in some neighborhoods and the over-supply of schools in others, for example—- when charter schools are rapidly expanded.
  • It’s also worth re-reading the resources in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 toolkit on privatization. Two of the short issue briefs explore the concerns covered in this post today: Are Charter Schools Truly Public Schools? and Do Charter Schools Profit from Educating Students?

Of course Betsy DeVos’s definition of school choice features a two part expansion of school privatizaton: more charters and more vouchers (and neo-vouchers like tuition tax credits and education savings accounts). You might want to check out the resources here for more on vouchers:

  • Be reminded that the Network for Public Education ‘s 2017 toolkit on privatization also contains important updates on vouchers and neo-vouchers here, here, here and here.
  • Consider Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski’s new Education Week commentary on vouchers: Student Vouchers Aren’t Working. Here’s Why. The Lubienskis—academic researchers on the effects of school privatization and authors of The Public School Advantage—examine new research on voucher programs in Washington, D.C, Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.  They note that, “While vouchers appear to be enjoying a higher profile with Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of education, the research on outcomes from these programs has taken a dramatic turn, one at odds with the direction DeVos and other policymakers are pursuing.”  Why do the new studies track lower achievement in voucher programs than traditional public schools?  A likely explanation “has to do with the actual students and schools themselves, including how students were grouped in private and public schools.  Prior to the recent batch of research that has cast doubt on vouchers, studies lauding vouchers tended to be based on local and more targeted programs involving relatively small, non representative sets of students and schools. Yet overall, private schools are actually no more effective, and often less so than public schools… Research as far back as the Coleman Report in 1966 indicates that private school students enjoy the beneficial ‘peer effect’ of being around affluent classmates who have abundant educational resources at home and parents who have firsthand experience with school success… This peer effect is a significant factor in student learning, but frankly, there are only a limited number of academically advantaged peers to go around.  And so as choice programs expand, the private-school peer effect is diluted.”
  • Finally, this week there is important news: the Education Law Center is launching a new Voucher Watch website, “an initiative to inform and assist advocates as they oppose the establishment and expansion of vouchers in their states. Voucher Watch… will track voucher proposals in state legislatures and from the federal government, provide details on existing state voucher programs, and compile research on the impact of vouchers on student outcomes.”  The Education Law Center, which has for many years been a national leader in legal challenges aiming to increase school funding equity and adequacy, recently provided pro bono legal assistance in a Nevada voucher case—  Lopez v. Schwartz—“which resulted in a Nevada Supreme Court decision finding ESA (education savings account) vouchers unconstitutional because they diverted funding allocated for the public schools to private education expenditures.”  The site is brand new, with only one page of background about vouchers so far, but the new website will grow.  What’s wrong with vouchers? The Voucher Watch website declares: “(V)ouchers drain critical resources from public education, thereby undermining the capacity of the public schools to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those at-risk or with special needs. Vouchers also lead to increased segregation within our communities, and private schools accepting vouchers do not have to comply with anti-discrimination laws. Even with this compelling evidence, states continue to propose laws to create or expand vouchers, and Congress is considering using federal education funds to incentivize states to do so.”

We Can Only Wish that Politicians Would Learn a Lesson from Sam Brownback’s Failed Tax Cutting

It’s budget season. At the federal level, Congress will soon consider the President’s proposed 2018 budget. And many states are up against a June 30th deadline: the end of Fiscal Year 2017 and the deadline for approving a new budget. Yesterday’s post examined the catastrophic programmatic implications of President Trump’s federal budget proposal. Today the focus will be a little different— taxing policy at the state, not the federal level, and the tax slashing that continues to underpin much budgeting in 2017. Please continue reading; I promise this post will not be overly technical.

Much of the talk about state taxing policy these days relates to what just happened in Kansas. Both houses of the Kansas Legislature had voted to overturn several years of Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cutting and at the same time to eliminate a special taxing innovation that reduced business taxes on pass-through income. Governor Brownback, whose dedication to tax cutting is undeterred, vetoed the Legislature’s big tax increase. But two weeks ago, the Legislature—both houses dominated by Republicans—overrode Governor Brownback’s veto. Since Gov. Brownback initiated his experiment with tax cutting, Kansas has fallen into a fiscal crisis, and its public schools had suffered from lack of funding. Earlier this spring, the state’s supreme court had presented an ultimatum to the Legislature: improve school funding by June 30, or school will not open in September.

Brownback has called his tax cuts a real life experiment in supply-side economics. His hypothesis? That the state’s economy would thrive because everybody would be drawn to low-tax-Kansas to open businesses. Explosive economic growth, he predicted, would follow the tax cuts.  Here is Michael Tomasky, writing for the NY Times about how the experiment turned out: “Kansas, under Gov. Sam Brownback, has come as close as we’ve ever gotten in the United States to conducting a perfect experiment in supply-side economics. The conservative governor, working with a conservative State Legislature, in the home state of the conservative Koch brothers, took office in 2011 vowing sharp cuts in taxes and state spending…. The taxes were cut, and by a lot. The cumulative cut was forecast to be $3.9 billion by 2019… The cuts came. But the growth never did… The experiment has been a disaster… Finally, even the Republican Kansas Legislature faced reality.”

Tomasky traces some of this back to Grover Norquist: “Republicans are not supposed to raise taxes, ever. In Washington or in the states. This goes back to President George H.W. Bush’s agreeing to a bipartisan tax increase in 1990 after famously saying in his 1988 campaign, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’  Afterward, the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist, started making Republican candidates for Congress and state houses sign a no-tax pledge. Ever since, with scattered exceptions, no Republican member of the House or Senate has voted for a tax increase. For 27 years. If you wonder why problems arise and Congress never does anything about them, the tax pledge is usually the answer, or at least an answer.”

Paul Krugman, the economist and NY Times columnist, calls supply-side tax slashing a “zombie” policy idea: “(T)he term refers to policy ideas that should have been abandoned long ago in the face of evidence and experience, but just keep shambling along. The right’s zombie-in-chief is the insistence that low taxes on the rich are the key to prosperity. This doctrine should have died when Bill Clinton’s tax hike failed to cause the predicted recession and was followed instead by an economic boom. It should have died again when George W. Bush’s tax cuts were followed by lackluster growth, then a crash. And it should have died yet again in the aftermath of the 2013 Obama tax hike—partly expiration of some Bush tax cuts, partly new taxes to pay for Obamacare—when the economy continued jogging along, adding 200,000 jobs a month. Despite the consistent wrongness of their predictions, however, tax-cut fanatics just kept gaining influence in the G.O.P.—until the disaster in Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback promised that deep tax cuts would yield an economic miracle. What the state got instead was weak growth and a fiscal crisis, finally pushing even Republicans to vote for tax hikes, overruling Brownback’s veto.”

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, looks at the Kansas story as an important cautionary tale; he remains hopeful but skeptical that legislators in other states and Republicans in Congress will learn the story’s lesson. He spoke about what just happened in Kansas in his speech last week to the Cleveland City Club, where he pointed out that the Kansas lesson should be taken to heart in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and Ohio’s all-Republican legislature have been running exactly the same experiment as Brownback’s in Kansas, and with similar results: “The Kansas tax cuts represent an important cautionary tale from which both state and federal policymakers should learn. And there are few states where these lessons are more applicable and important than Ohio. Your state has actually cut its top income tax rate even more deeply than Kansas did. Kansas cut its rate 29% since 2012. Ohio has cut its top rate one-third since 2005, from a top rate of 7.5% to just under 5%.  Moreover, one of Kansas’ most damaging tax cuts was eliminating state income tax on what is known as ‘pass-through income’…. Ohio enacted a similar provision—eliminating state income tax on the first $250,000 a year of pass-through income and taxing the rest at just 3%. As in Kansas, the Ohio tax cuts have not delivered the promised results…”

Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio just reported on the fiscal impact of Ohio’s tax cut on pass-through income, “A tax break on business income first enacted in 2013 is now costing Ohio about $1 billion a year. That’s far more than previous public estimates, which didn’t attempt to account for the full value of the break.”

How is all this cautionary history directly relevant in a blog whose primary subject is public education?  Brent Larkin, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes the connection perfectly clear in his column in last Sunday’s paper: “Hide the children. Ohio’s legislators need a scapegoat.  And in this state, when the going gets tough, the kids get punished. Sometime between now and June 30, it’ll happen again… With tax revenues in a free fall, the Ohio General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich need to compensate for a multibillion-dollar mistake largely of their own making by inflicting pain on the people they’re supposed to serve, not betray. Like cornered rats, their way out will be to shortchange kids. So they’ll essentially flat-fund most school districts, while slashing support for others, ignoring yet again that ‘thorough and efficient’ system of schools requirement in Article VI of the Ohio Constitution.” And, “they will perpetuate Ohio’s ongoing pattern of shamefully underinvesting in preschool programs.” Larkin continues: “How is it a state that spent the past six years awash in tax revenue now lacks the money to make life-changing investments in a child’s future?  The answer involves a misjudgment so egregious that if it happened in the private sector everyone involved would pay with their jobs. Six years ago, instead of balancing tax cuts with massive investments in the future, Kasich and his legislative conspirators began engineering what now total $5 billion in tax cuts.”

Here is Gordon Lafer—the labor, economics and state policy expert—explaining, in his new book, what he believes to be an even deeper motive of ALEC, Grover Norquist and the huge corporate lobbies who are driving Congress and the state legislatures to adhere zealously to tax-slashing: “The corporate lobbies have pursued an agenda that steadily shrinks public services, including education, health care, libraries, recreation, parks, and transportation. The agenda serves to lower corporate tax bills and creates new markets for those hoping to profit from the privatization of public services. But there are deeper rationales underlying the erosion of public services… At a deeper level, the elimination of basic services serves, over time, to lower popular expectations regarding the standard of living to which one is entitled. For the economic elite—the few seeking to extend their rule over the many—the central political question of this time is how to accelerate economic inequality without provoking a political backlash.  A key component of the answer to this question appears to be an attempt to engineer what might be termed a revolution of falling expectations among the public.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 75-76)

Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It: Catering to the Desires of Individuals Won’t Serve the Common Good

Betsy DeVos is a libertarian. One cannot drill this concept often enough. DeVos believes in the freedom of individuals to make the choices that benefit themselves and their children. It is the kind of thinking that promotes the rights of individuals above all else. Wikipedia’s definition of libertarianism perfectly describes the thinking of Betsy DeVos: “Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment, and self-ownership.”  Libertarians don’t believe government should interfere with individual liberty.

The other day, Betsy DeVos made people in the audience mad when she addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (We’ll ignore for a minute the fact that charter schools are, as a form of private contracting, not really public schools.), because she didn’t seem fully to endorse charter schooling. Here is what she said: “Charter schools are here to stay… But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter… school works for them… I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed… and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve… We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.”  She also emphasized “the parents’ right to decide.”

She also criticized the bureaucracy and red tape that she believes are hampering charter schools, a critique meaning that DeVos rejects the role of government to protect our society through regulation. For DeVos, government regulation is the enemy, which is why the Great Lakes Education Project—the Michigan lobbying organization founded and funded by DeVos and her family—strong-armed the Michigan legislature to defeat the plan for a Detroit Education Commission to bring Detroit’s out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector under some oversight and to ensure that schools open in neighborhoods that need schools instead of neighborhoods with an oversupply of schools.

Betsy DeVos’s libertarianism allows her to ignore the concept of opportunity cost in education. She worries about liberty and freedom for each particular parent and child, but the mechanics of how we’ll pay for all this elude her. Economists call it “opportunity cost” when, because the budget is fixed, we have to  choose what we can afford. If we choose one kind of publicly funded school, we can’t also fund private alternatives unless we increase the budget. Opportunity cost in education is obvious to parents of children in public schools whose classes are getting larger, for example. Our problem is threefold, but Betsy DeVos doesn’t notice: (1) the overall federal budget for education has declined due to austerity budgeting and the sequester, (2) state budgets, a primary source of education funding, have fallen in nearly half the states since the 2008 recession, and (3) we have at the same time added publicly funded, privatized alternatives—charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Hence, we’ve lost the opportunity to spend as much on the public schools—which continue to educate 90 percent of our society’s children.

There are a mass of other negative spillover costs for society as a whole from school privatization—problems Betsy DeVos chooses not to see because she worries about individuals, not institutions. We judge the privatized educational alternatives by test scores (the mis-measure our society uses exclusively these days to evaluate schools), but even in cases where students’ test scores rise  and we brag about the “successful” privatized alternatives, we know there is other negative collateral damage from the privatization. Bruce Baker and Gordon Lafer have documented that in big city school districts, when the number of charters is rapidly expanded—particularly when charter operators choose the neighborhoods where they want to open schools—the charter sector operates as a parasite on the host public school district. After charters drain neighborhood public schools of children as parents are lured by charter school advertising, some public schools empty out and are closed. As the process proceeds, there is nowhere for children to return if the charter school proves academically deficient or is later closed.  The neighborhood has at the same time lost the public schools as institutional anchors. When students leave for privatized alternatives, there are also stranded costs for the public schools, stranded costs for building staff, facilities, and transportation that cannot be recouped. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to serve all children. Private schools  accepting vouchers are able to pick and choose the students they accept, and privatized charter schools can push out students with behavior problems or low test scores. Charters and schools accepting vouchers are rarely staffed to serve severely handicapped children and English language learners, the children who require the expensive services the public system must continue to provide. And the federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of such children can be ignored by private schools.

In contrast to DeVos’s libertarian worldview, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson consider education a social and civic project, something that can’t  be shopped for by individuals in a competitive marketplace: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

In a column published this week, Arthur Camins, a lifelong public school and college educator, explains that we cannot counter Betsy DeVos’s libertarian philosophy of education simply by reciting these arguments about the ways privatization does not work. It is the philosophy of individualism itself that must be rejected: “It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children—from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond—could end up as our co-workers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good—not just to suit individual parents’ desires… I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition.  Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted.  Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?”

Camins condemns not only the kind of individualism Betsy DeVos promotes but also our broader political climate for tolerating inequality of opportunity across American school districts, educational inequality that grows from our society’s economic inequality: “Of course, some schools do a better job than others…. (T)he big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result of our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortably stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum—whose lives are hardly easy or secure—to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.”

None of the world’s major religions has an ethical system based on the prowess of the individual and the survival of the fittest. Ethics is always about the way we conduct our relationships with other people in community. Here is the way a Christian, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman defines the concept of justice in a civic institution like our public school system: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”

PBS Airs Libertarian Propaganda Endorsing Privatization of Public Education

The Public Broadcasting System has been airing a three part documentary, School Inc., on the local PBS stations that have chosen to pick up the program. It is a piece of libertarian propaganda and makes no attempt to balance its advocacy for privatized and unregulated schooling. The film was created and is narrated by Andrew Coulson, who, for ten years before his premature death of brain cancer at age 48, served as director of the  libertarian, Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. In 1999, he published a book, Market Education: The Unknown History, but he is said to have considered the film, School Inc., his magnum opus.

On Tuesday afternoon, Diane Ravitch posted on her blog a commentary on Coulson’s three-part “personal reflection” on school privatization.  Ravitch posted the same piece on Huffington Post, and in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss picked up and republished Ravitch’s commentary. Ravitch was also interviewed about Coulson’s film on New York’s WNET, Channel 13. You can watch the 10 minute interview.

Ravitch correctly pegs School Inc. as a piece of right-wing, libertarian propaganda, an unbalanced attack on public education: “(T)he Public Broadcasting System is broadcasting a ‘documentary’ that tells a one-sided story, the story that (Betsy) DeVos herself would tell, based on the work of the late free-market advocate Andrew Coulson… Uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, teachers selling their lessons to students on the internet. They will learn about the ‘success’ of the free market in schooling in Chile, Sweden, and New Orleans. They will hear about the miraculous charter schools across America, and how public school officials selfishly refuse to encourage the transfer of public funds to private institutions… What they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.”

On his blog The Grade, on the website of the Phi Delta Kappan, Alexander Russo printed a very thoughtful review of  School Inc. by Amy Shuffleton, Associate Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies at Loyola University Chicago. She writes: “Two major premises, that education is best categorized as an industry and that industry is best subjected to unfettered free market forces, are maintained throughout. The upside of this approach is that those premises give the series a strong through line as it builds its argument across three hour-long, globe-trekking episodes. The downside is that the series never considers countervailing accounts of education and presents only strawman versions of the evidence that challenges his (Andrew Coulson’s) ideals… Supporters of traditional public schooling can find grounds to quarrel with Coulson’s interpretations all the way through.”

Who, besides Andrew Coulson and the Cato Institute, were involved in producing this film?  Shuffleton explains: “School Inc was produced by Free to Choose Media. According to a Free to Choose spokesperson, it was created by Coulson, who raised the funding necessary to make it… Free to Choose network shares a name with its first production, the 10-part series by economist Milton Friedman that aired on PBS in 1980. Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, argued that free market economic principles are the basis of human freedom and wellbeing. Friedman’s neoliberal followers have opposed government regulations in a host of domains, including education.”  The foundation now called EdChoice, which promotes the privatization of public education, was formerly named the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Ravitch examines the funders: “I researched the funders and discovered that the lead funder is the Rose Mary and Jack Anderson Foundation, a very conservative foundation that is a major contributor to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice), which advocates for vouchers.  The Anderson Foundation is allied with Donors Trust, whose donors make contributions that cannot be traced to them.  Mother Jones referred to this foundation as part of ‘the-dark money ATM of the conservative movement.’  Other contributors to Donors Trust include the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity’ and the Richard and Helen DeVos foundation. The second major funder is the Prometheus Foundation. It’s public filings with the IRS show that its largest grant ($2.5 million) went to the Ayn Rand Institute. The third listed funder of School Inc. is the Steve and Lana Hardy Foundation, which contributes to free-market libertarian think tanks.”

If you google for reviews of the three-part School Inc., you will find several besides the column I have referenced here by Amy Shuffleton at The Grade.  The other reviews were part of the promotion of the film—from the Cato Institute, Free To Choose Media, the National Review, and the Civitas Institute, a far-right North Carolina “think tank” affiliated with Art Pope.

Here is how the Cato Institute, in a memorial reflection at the time of his death, described Andrew Coulson’s qualifications for leading its Center for Educational Freedom: “Andrew Coulson grew up in Canada and got a degree in mathematics and computer science from McGill University, after which he became a software engineer at Microsoft.  As we said in announcing his joining Cato as director of the Center for Educational Freedom, ‘while Bill Gates quit school to form Microsoft, Andrew Coulson quit Microsoft to reform schools.'”

The film’s full title is School Inc.: A Personal Journey with Andrew Coulson. Here is the PBS online blurb about the series.  When Valerie Strauss inquired why PBS is running such a biased program, here was the reply: “A PBS spokesman said in an email… that the network stations ‘offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue’ and that School Inc. is ‘an independent production that reflects the personal viewpoint of series creator Andrew Coulson.'”

Ironically the Public Broadcasting System’s existence is under attack by libertarians who believe that government should have no role in broadcast media. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates government funding for PBS.

Ohio State Board of Education Demands that ECOT Return $60 Million It Overcharged the State

Yesterday afternoon, members of the Ohio State Board of Education voted 16-1 to demand that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s large and notorious cyber charter school, pay back $60 million it overcharged the state last year for students who were not participating full-time in its educational program. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reminds readers that ECOT has claimed an enrollment of 15,300 full-time students, while log-in data for the 2015-16 school year confirms the enrollment of only 6,300 students participating as state law requires: 5 hours-per-day (or 20 hours-per-week) (or 920 hours-per- year).

Today’s 16-1 vote margin among members of the State School Board demonstrates that opposition to ECOT’s theft of tax dollars has become bipartisan. After all, Ohio is an all-Republican state with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion controlled by Republicans. The State Board of Education—part-appointed and part-elected—is also dominated by Republicans.

ECOT has taken the state to court to try to block the state’s claw-back of $60 million paid to the school last year for phantom students. O’Donnell fills in the legal background. Last September, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jenifer French upheld the Ohio Department of Education’s finding that many students have been logging in only about an hour per day. ECOT appealed Judge French’s decision, and it is expected that the Franklin County Court of Appeals will rule on ECOT’s appeal later this summer. To block yesterday’s vote by the State School Board to uphold the findings of a hearing officer at the Ohio Department of Education, however, ECOT had filed an emergency injunction in the Franklin County Court of Appeals. Last Wednesday, however, ECOT lost its bid to prevent yesterday’s vote.

Catherine Candisky of the Columbus Dispatch quotes Neil Clark, ECOT’s lobbyist, responding to yesterday’s overwhelming vote against ECOT by the State School Board’: “Any order (to repay the money) is irresponsible, premature, and vindictive until the court appeals are exhausted.” Unfortunately the matter will not be resolved quickly.  Clark declared that the school—founded by William Lager, a major Ohio Republican political donor, and operated by Lager-owned privately held management companies—will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Candisky describes ECOT’s plea for mercy after yesterday’s overwhelming vote to demand the $60 million repayment to the state: “The decision, ECOT officials say, is a death blow to the school; they claim it will have to close if forced to repay the money.”

The ECOT scandal has been long running. (See this blog’s coverage here.)  Karen Kasler commented late yesterday for the Statehouse News Bureau: “Simply put, ECOT is paid by the state for the number of full time students enrolled, as all traditional and charter schools are. And a 165-page report from an Ohio Department of Education hearing officer determined ECOT counted 9,000 more full time students than it actually had last year, inflating its full time enrollment by 60% to receive $108 million in state funding.”  Kasler also comments on Rep. Andrew Brenner, chair of the House Education Committee and a non-voting member of the State Board, who was present at yesterday’s meeting: “He’s also a supporter of ECOT. And though the battle between ECOT and the Department of Education has been going on for a year, Brenner said he thinks the board could have held off on its vote to allow time to look for more data to show what’s happening at the online school.”

The press has doggedly kept up the pressure on the legislature, the Department of Education, and the State Board of Education to stop the ECOT scandal.  Here is the most recent example, an editorial from yesterday morning’s Akron Beacon Journal warning members of the State Board of Education about what would be at stake in their vote yesterday afternoon: “The State Board of Education meets today, and the members have an opportunity to strike a blow for accountability and quality in the funding of public schools. A month ago, a state hearing officer ruled that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow failed to justify roughly 60 percent of its enrollment.  Now is the moment for the board to order that the online school pay back the money it claimed under false pretenses… The on-line school has been nothing if not brazen. It has argued for months, through its lobbyists and in court, that it does not have an obligation to ensure that students actually participate in learning… The State Board of Education has good reason to accept the findings and recommendation of the hearing officer. Collecting the money the state overpaid isn’t about shutting down ECOT. It’s about accountability and quality, ensuring that public dollars serve the intended purpose.”

Betsy DeVos: When an Opponent of Government Joins the Government

Are you tired of hearing Betsy DeVos repeat her one idea about education—that parents should have the right to choose their children’s school? Why does she not branch out a little bit at least and consider the issues that are supposed to be within the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, the agency of which she is now in charge? Why does she never seem really to appreciate the work of public school teachers in the schools she visits? (To read about Betsy DeVos’s Senate testimony on Tuesday about her department’s federal budget proposal, read Valerie Strauss’s report.)

Sitting on my desk are copies of two recent reflections on Betsy DeVos’s beliefs and how her ideas shape her leadership.

First Peter Greene, the Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger, critiques a statement from the American Federation for Children (AFC), the advocacy organization that Betsy DeVos founded and whose board she chaired until she became our U.S. Secretary of Education.  Greene is bothered by this statement from AFC, a declaration that sounds exactly like Betsy DeVos: “It is school choice—directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child—that is the most democratic of ideas.”

Green responds:  “Nope, nope, nope, nopity nope. There are arguments to be made for parent choice, but ‘it’s the essence of democracy’ is not one of them…  Democracy is not, ‘My fellow taxpayers have to pay for whatever I decide on my own that I want.’…  It is the taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayers have given it to support a system that will educate all students in the community through an institution managed by elected representatives of those taxpayers…. Democracy is about coming together as a group to discuss, debate, (hopefully) compromise, and elect folks who will decide how best to manage our resources.”

Second, Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect reflects on charter schools, economic inequality and a belief in free markets: “The billionaires, apparently, we shall always have with us—even when we decide how to run the state-funded schools where they rarely send their own kids… Indeed, we have to go back to the economic polarization of pre-New Deal America to find a time when the super-rich felt so compelled to better the lot of the poor, as they understood it. Andrew Carnegie, who grew mightily rich by building the American steel industry, famously established libraries in thousands of cities and towns. Though, unlike today’s charter backers, he wasn’t draining off funds that could go to public libraries in the process. What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment…. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services. Living in separate eras when the middle class was—and is—embattled and the gap between rich and poor was—and is—immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment…. As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that… is the cause of our national woes.  Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself.  How very comforting for them.”

Unrelated as their statements at first appear, both Greene and Meyerson are condemning the kind of libertarian education philosophy embraced by Betsy DeVos.  Libertarianism situates individuals as competitors in a market-driven world and rewards persistent and determined strivers.  Greene castigates the libertarian idea that parental choice is the essence of democracy, because he knows that the mass of private parental choices will not, as libertarians assume, come to define what’s good for all of us. Likewise Meyerson attacks libertarian assumptions as he contrasts the idea that marketplace school choice will be the path for individual betterment to the theory that public policy should compensate for the deficiencies and excesses of an alarmingly unequal market economy.

That libertarian Betsy DeVos seems out of place leading a government bureaucracy should not be surprising; after all she is not an educator and she has called government-operated schools “a dead end”  She married into Amway, the family business that most perfectly defines the libertarian idea of the entrepreneurship of the individual.  The very name of the company, “Amway”—where individuals contract to sell products door-to-door and recruit other individual sales associates—is short for “the American Way.”

Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson reject the market-driven, libertarian direction that now pervades DeVos’s Department of Education. In their 2016 book, American Amnesia, they make the case for government as an absolutely necessary balance for markets in a mixed economy: “The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly)” (American Amnesia, p. 7)

Hacker and Pierson explain: “That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries… Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes: underinvestment in education, financial instability, insufficient infrastructure, unchecked monopolies. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t…. reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account…. regulate the market to protect consumers and investors…. provide or require certain insurance protections…. and soften the business cycle and reduce the risk of financial crises.” (American Amnesia, p. 4-5)

So how does all this help explain our dilemma today as we live with a government-despising libertarian as the leader of our government’s Department of Education?

We’ll start briefly with Hacker and Pierson, who speak specifically to education: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)

Then there is the matter of the role of government to protect civil rights. In hearings before Congress Betsy DeVos has persistently (and frustratingly) skirted questions about the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education for protecting students’ civil rights.  DeVos almost always responds to such questions with a defense of parents’ personal right to choose a school for their children. She doggedly explains that if things are not going well at school, parents should have the right to choose another school. Pauline Lipman, a Chicago education theorist, responded several years ago to what she calls the “neoliberal” (libertarian) thinking of the school privatizers promoting the rapid expansion of charter schools in Chicago. Lipman does not idealize the public schools. In fact she believes that privatization initiatives like Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 were a response to the poorly funded, under-staffed and overwhelmed neighborhood public schools.  But privatization has not, she believes, addressed the needs of Chicago’s children: “The Keynesian welfare state framed people as citizens with certain civil rights and the state as responsible for a minimal level of social well-being. Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’….” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The late Benjamin Barber reminds us, however, that as consumers of services, we lack the rights of democratic citizens who can, at least in theory, choose representatives with the power to protect our interests.  With privatization, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)  In Chicago and Detroit, a primary source of inequality has been that charter operators themselves, without public oversight, have been permitted to choose the neighborhoods in which they have sited their schools—without any consideration of the overabundance of schools in some neighborhoods and the shortage of schools in other neighborhoods.

Tony Judt, the late British historian, reminds us that one of the failures of libertarian privatization is that the public seems always to have to keep on subsidizing the services which have been privatized: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient.  Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.” (Ill Fares the Land, p 109)  If DeVos is able to lead Congress to expand the privatization of education, Congress, state legislatures and local property taxpayers will commence sending more public funds to pay tuition at religious schools whose students would likely never have attended public schools in the first place. And taxpayers will pay for the outrageous profits for the owners and operators of behemoth online virtual schools like K-12,Inc.

How can Betsy DeVos be confident that parents are well enough informed to make good school choices for their children? Here are Hacker and Pierson worrying about uneven access to information: “Even more widespread are issues related to consumer myopia, when consumers know too little or focus on the wrong things or don’t look far enough into the future to make wise choices… The emerging field of ‘behavioral economics’ incorporates insights from psychologists about the many ways in which actual human decision making falls short—way short—of the traditional economics assumption of perfect information, perfectly processed.” (American Amnesia, p. 81)  In huge charter school marketplaces like New Orleans and Detroit, a primary criticism has been poor information made available to parents about the array of schools.

Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine worry that privatization, in the form of rapid growth of charter schools, has worsened inequality in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities.  The best charters may be a lifeboat for a few children, but only for a very few: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas. This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of private education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities and schools for needed levels of targeted investment. Clearly the conditions necessary to reinvent learning and instruction… for a majority of poor students of color cannot be achieved within this intellectually arid and fiscally degraded reform box. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, p 87)

None of this alleviates our dilemma posed by the appointment of a libertarian who despises government as the leader of our government’s education department. It is helpful, however, to keep in mind all of this thinking from the critics of libertarian education theory.  At least it explains why many of us are so frustrated and so angry.

Public education is among our society’s largest and most pervasive civic institutions. It is, therefore, also helpful to keep in mind a definition of institutional justice from an ethicist, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” Justice in education must be systemic; it cannot be achieved through competition in a privatized education marketplace that produces losers as well as winners.

After Acrimonious Standoff, One State Legislature Rejects DeVos-ALEC School Privatization Scheme

Unless you are a parent or a taxpayer in Nevada, you will probably conclude that this blog post doesn’t relate to you. But the defeat of Nevada’s ALEC-driven plan for Education Savings Account vouchers is directly relevant to you. Education Savings Accounts are among the most extreme of the school voucher schemes being promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose education priorities will, most likely, have to been enacted at the state level. On Sunday night, Nevada’s legislature defeated this plan after a two-year battle. This subject matters to you because your state could soon be considering such a program.

Here is a bit of background from the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown, writing in June of 2015: “In January (2015), Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”  “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” The only qualification was that the child must have attended a public school for 100 days.

Last September, after the Nevada Supreme Court found the funding for the Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional, the program was put on hold. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel in the case that found the funding for this program unconstitutional, provides a quick summary of what happened to this program after the ruling of Nevada’s state supreme court, as Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval tried to resurrect the ALEC-driven, Education Savings Account voucher program:

“Gov. Brian Sandoval is pressing lawmakers to revive the private school voucher program blocked last September by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program was unconstitutional because it would deplete funds earmarked by the Legislature to operate Nevada’s public schools. The governor’s bill, SB 506, carries forward most features of the prior law. Sandoval wants the per-pupil amount spent on public school students, roughly $5,700, to be deposited into education savings accounts to subsidize private and religious school tuition and pay for other private education expenses. The governor also wants vouchers for any household, even the wealthy… To get around the Supreme Court ruling, SB 506 changes the way vouchers are funded. The funding will not come directly out of public school budgets. Instead, Sandoval proposes a separate appropriation of $60 million over the biennium. At that level, approximately 2,500 vouchers can be awarded each year, not enough for everyone who signed up under the prior law. So the vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One more bit of background: what are Education Savings Account vouchers?  These programs give parents the amount of money the state would otherwise have spent to educate a child. The parents give up their right to a public education and can instead use the money for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring, test prep, homeschooling curriculum, therapeutic services, transportation and other educational expenses. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has developed a model bill that can be introduced in any state legislature. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee currently have Education Savings Accounts.

One problem for Governor Sandoval and SB 506 is that last November, voters threw out Republican domination of Nevada’s legislature and elected Democratic majorities in both houses. The fight about Education Savings Accounts developed in recent weeks into a power struggle between Governor Sandoval and the legislature, a fight that threatened to derail the state budget. On Sunday, the legislature blocked Sandoval and refused to pass the SB 506 Education Savings Account program.

A deal was struck by which the Legislature made a one-time grant to a smaller voucher program but defeated the Governor’s bill for Education Savings Accounts. Arianna Prothero explains for Education Week: “An effort to fund Nevada’s ambitious program to give all public school students the option to take state money allocated to them and use it instead for private school tuition, or other approved education-related expenses, is dead for this session. It’s unclear what this means for the future of the program, as the Nevada legislature only meets once every two years.” The legislature concluded its current session on Monday with the passage of the state budget. Prothero adds: “However, the deal does contain an extra $20 million over the next two years for a separate private school choice program that has a cap on how much a family can earn in order to be eligible for the aid. That will be paid for by taxing marijuana sales and growers….”

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra celebrates the defeat of the enormous Education Savings Account program by Nevada’s legislature: “The voucher defeat in Nevada is a resounding repudiation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s privatization agenda. Parents and taxpayers want investment in their public schools, not vouchers paid for with taxpayer dollars.  Nevada also shows that when parents, civil rights groups and taxpayers come together, they can succeed in keeping public funding in public schools.”