New from the National Education Policy Center: “How School Privatization Opens the Door for Discrimination”

Last week this blog explored some of the ways the expansion of school choice ends up creating injustice and inequality. The National Education Policy Center just published a new report, How School Privatization Opens the Door for Discrimination, in which Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University further investigate one particular aspect of the same topic: how privately operated charter schools and private schools receiving publicly funded tuition vouchers fail, often quite legally, to protect the civil rights rights of their students and staff.

Mead and Eckes explain: “Our review of relevant laws indicates that voucher and charter school programs open the door to discrimination because of three phenomena.  First, federal law defines discrimination differently in public and private spaces. Second, state legislatures have largely ignored the issue of non-discrimination while constructing voucher laws and have created charter laws that fail to comprehensively address non-discrimination. And third, because private and charter schools have been given authority to determine what programs to offer, they have the ability to attract some populations while excluding others.”

The new report briefly summarizes the history of attempts to ensure that public schools protect the rights of all students: “Whether and to what degree schools should be available to all children without regard to race, national origin, religion, immigration status, first language, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability has a long litigious history.  While it is routine now to observe that public schools must enroll all students, that understanding evolved over time beginning with litigation in the 1950s.  As illustrated by the decisions in Brown v. the Board of Education, Lau v. Nichols, Plyler v. Doe, and Mills v. the Board of Education of the District of Columbia, it took many brave plaintiffs and unflinching jurists to reach the conclusion that the term ‘public’ excludes no one and that equal educational opportunity defines our collective obligation to our nation’s children.  Congress reinforced those rulings by enacting a series of federal laws to emphasize that discrimination has no place in public education… Despite such hard fought judicial and legislative battles, public schools still struggle to realize that aspirational ideal.  Persistent achievement gaps, funding disparities, over-representation of students of color in special education, under-representation of students or color in advanced placement and honors programs, and the continued overuse of suspension and expulsion all suggest that public schools and the state and local officials who operate them have much work to do before equal educational opportunity is achieved.”  But, as regards public schools, laws on the books at the federal level offer plaintiffs and their allies a path to seek equal treatment through the courts.

However: “As states have created new forms of publicly funded educational options in the form of voucher programs and charter schools, issues of discrimination have surfaced in these programs as well.  In fact, the first instances of publicly funded school choice were expressly designed to discriminate by closing public schools and providing tax-supported vouchers to private schools that enrolled only white children… The reality is that educational privatization and discrimination have always been entwined.”

The report provides examples of the many ways federal law protects the rights of students in public schools but applies differently in voucher and charter schools—including the Supreme Court’s permission of the use of public vouchers in religious schools that openly promote the faith traditions of the schools’ operators, despite that the First Amendment precludes such a violation of religious liberty. The Court in this case ruled that the vouchers are awarded not directly to the school but instead to the parents, who then choose a school.  Mead and Eckes explore the different application in private and charter schools of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and describe the many ways charter schools and private schools receiving vouchers skirt federal requirements mandating the provision of appropriate services for students with disabilities. Finally, private religious schools accepting vouchers have been made exempt from compliance with laws to protect LGBT students and staff.

The researchers describe conflicting court decisions across several states defining charter schools. Some of these decisions define charter schools as public (due to their funding stream) while other states call them private contractors.  For example, an Arizona court found that a charter school operates as a private actor: “(T)he Ninth Circuit found that while  a private entity might be considered a state actor for some purposes, it is still possible to function as a private actor in other ways.  In other words. the constitutional protection of due process was unavailable to this public charter school teacher because a private company—not a governmental unit—employed him.  Likewise, a California state appellate court reasoned that charter schools are exempt from many laws that govern school districts.”

Neither have states been vigilant about forcing charter schools—in their operation and programming—to fulfill the promises they advertise about serving the needs of all groups of students:  “(T)he majority of federal requirements (at least, those pertaining to students) do apply to charter schools.  And yet, research frequently documents that charter schools enroll more homogeneous populations and tend to have fewer children with special needs.  Why?  One reason is that while charter school laws may include non-discrimination declarations, they may not include any requirement for authorizers to examine schools’ policies and practices around recruitment, enrollment, and expulsion, nor to review student attrition data.”  And, “(P)rivate and charter schools have the authority to determine their educational programs…. For example, if private schools do not have to—and do not—provide special programming for children learning English, it would be no surprise that few English language learners apply or enroll there. The same is true for children with disabilities.”

Finally, federal laws need updating to incorporate protections in an era when school privatization has expanded: “The federal laws that bind public schools were developed when charter and voucher programs did not exist. It seems apparent that Congress must review those provisions so that they better reflect the ways states now use public dollars to support charter and voucher schools… State legislators also need to examine their charter and voucher school laws to ensure they have taken adequate steps to address non-discrimination. While these laws may have been developed as an experiment with educational deregulation, we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars.”

In his new book on education finance, Bruce Baker comments on our society’s mistake about school choice: the belief that expanding publicly funded school choice will result in justice for poor children:  “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions… Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Julie Mead and Suzanne Eckes’ new report demonstrates the many ways charter schools and private schools receiving public tuition vouchers are unequal specifically because of their failure to protect by law each student’s right to equal access, equal opportunity, and the provision of programming appropriate to the child’s needs.

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More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

Chicago Teachers at 15-School Acero Charter Chain Strike: First Walkout at a Unionized Charter School Network

In the first walkout at a U.S. charter school network, 500 teachers at Chicago’s Acero (formerly UNO) charter school chain went on strike Tuesday.

Acero Charter Schools’ teachers are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union.  While teachers in a number of Chicago charter schools had formed their own ChiACTS union, at the end of last January, ChiACTS merged with the 28,000 member Chicago Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers local.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein reports that Acero charter schools serve 7,000 students. “Educators at Acero earn up to $13,000 less than their counterparts at traditional public schools in Chicago…. The chief executive of Acero, Richard I. Rodriguez, earns about $260,000 annually to manage 15 schools, a similar salary to that of Janice K. Jackson, the chief executive of the Chicago Public School system, which includes over 500 schools.”

In a press release, the Chicago Teachers’ Union describes critical issues on which the school’s management team and the CTU bargaining team remain far apart: “class size, sanctuary school community language in the contract, fair compensation for paraprofessionals, and lower class sizes, which are currently set at 32 students per class—four more than what Chicago Public Schools seeks to meet at district-run schools.  CTU members have called those class sizes both outrageous and unsafe for students, particularly children in kindergarten through second grade, where one adult simply does not have the capacity to safely supervise, let alone educate 32 young children.”  Teachers at Acero charters are also required to work longer hours and for a longer school year than teachers in the Chicago Public Schools—20 percent more, writes Laura Meckler of the Washington Post.

For the Chicago Sun-Times, Manny Ramos, Alice Yin and Lauren FitzPatrick explain why sanctuary school community language has become a bargaining issue for teachers at Acero Charter Schools, where 90 percent of the students are Latino-Latina: “Teachers on the picket lines Tuesday stressed the importance of sanctuary school protections for their students and families, a designation that bars federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement from entering campus without a court order, warrant, or subpoena.  Such working conditions for staff are bargainable for charter schools, though not for Chicago Public Schools, union attorney Robert Bloch said.”  While the right to public education is protected for non-citizen children by the 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established 14th Amendment protection of the right to public primary and secondary education for children who are undocumented, teachers at Acero Charter Schools clearly feel they need to reassure families that parents’ and students’ rights and safety are protected in their charter school buildings.

The Sun-Times report continues, describing a teacher’s focus on sanctuary status: “Yecenia Iturve, a fourth-grade teacher at Acero Schools, said this is one of the key issues that forced her to walk off the job Tuesday.  Many of her students have openly expressed their anxiety to her about their family’s immigration status. ‘Being a sanctuary school means that our students, and their family have a safe place to come to.  Our students need to know this is a safe place for them.'”

In her coverage at the Washington Post, Laura Meckler establishes important context for this first strike by unionized teachers at a charter school network: “More than 500 teachers and other staff members at 15 charter schools operated by the nonprofit Acero Schools walked out of the classroom after failing to reach a new contract… The educators are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has organized about 25 percent of charter schools in the city. Nationally, about 11 percent of charters operate under collective bargaining agreements….  Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, and they have drawn support from school-choice advocates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but also some Democrats.  Nationally, nearly 7,000 charter schools serve about 3 million students.”

Why School Choice Ends Up Creating Injustice and Inequality

In his new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, school funding expert, Bruce Baker critiques the rapid expansion of charter schools for siphoning off dollars from state and local public school budgets.  Baker also addresses the philosophical contention frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few.

Our society now accepts the essential promise of liberty defined as freedom from enslavement and domination. We also would like to believe that our society provides freedom from want, and many argue that school choice offers opportunity to those who have been disempowered by poverty.  The wealthy can pay for whatever kind of education they want to choose for their children.  So… what about helping poorer people with freedom of choice—at public expense—in an education marketplace? Won’t that result in what the “portfolio school reform” think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, promises: “a great school for every child in every neighborhood”?

Baker argues that more choice will not necessarily result in equal access to quality schooling.  Instead, equal opportunity can be better protected systemically: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Three charter school news reports—this week alone—demonstrate the truth of Baker’s contention that justice can best be served in an education system which protects—by law—students’ rights as well as the public stewardship of tax dollars.

Detroit: Charter School Promises Miracles, Achievement Plummets, School Closes

In the first example, for Chalkbeat, Koby Levin describes the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, while signs on the grass surrounding Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice declared: “Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy… Now Enrolling 9th-12th Grades,” parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea behind charter schools is that the marketplace will regulate. Parents are expected to demand quality, and the schools they don’t choose will eventually close in what is dreamed to be an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders.

But running a school was much more difficult than Delta Prep’s founders expected, and the management company the board hired couldn’t fulfill the founders’ promises: “Delta officials had promised that ’90 percent of students will attend every class, on time, every day.’ But in the school’s third year, just 20 percent of students came to class with any regularity. Officials said they would boost student achievement… Their goal: ‘85% of students will demonstrate competency in all core subjects via exit tests.’  But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.  If the data was concerning, the situation inside the school was even more dire.  When Brandi North was hired as principal in 2017, the first thing she did was hire security. The sprawling school was built during an era when Detroit couldn’t find enough classroom space for all of its students, but now it sat mostly unused, and students tended to disappear into vacant classrooms. Teacher-student relations were antagonistic.”

At fault in Detroit? A complicated mix of good intentions and huge problems promises couldn’t solve. Lack of regulation. Well-intentioned founders who hired a management company that spent too little on instruction. A shortage of state funds in Michigan which has failed adequately to fund traditional public schools and charter schools.  Students whose needs were greater than the school’s founders anticipated. A competitive marketplace where parents and students lured by advertising and promises were misled in every way.  After Delta Prep ended up on the state’s watchlist as a low performing school, only 264 students out of the 350 who were expected showed up this fall. As students and their state funding fell away, the school was forced to close by late September.

Levin concludes: “Delta Prep’s sudden demise added to a two-decade drumbeat of school closures that has left Detroit’s education landscape in turmoil, and has forced thousands of students to endure the serious social and academic consequences of unneccesarily changing schools.”

Perfectly Legal: Arizona Lawmaker Profits from Charter Schools and Helps Make Laws to Enrich Himself

This Arizona story isn’t so much about how charter school expansion has disrupted students’ right to an education.  Instead it is about how unscrupulous charter school operators rip off the tax dollars intended for public education and urgently needed by public schools. For the Arizona Republic, Craig Harris profiles Eddie Farnsworth, a member of the Arizona House, and elected to the Arizona Senate on November 6, 2018: “When the Benjamin Franklin charter chain completes the purchase next month of its four East Valley campuses from founder Eddie Farnsworth, ownership will shift to a newly formed nonprofit company.  But the $569 million deal, from which Farnsworth will pocket $13.9 million, won’t be the state lawmaker’s last payday from the schools he’s owned for decades.  Records show he will loan Benjamin Franklin $2.8 million over seven years, earning himself $478,000 in interest while ensuring the schools have enough cash to keep operating.  He’ll collect another $79,600 a year in rent on the building that currently serves as Benjamin Franklin’s corporate headquarters.  And Farnsworth, who has been a staunch defender of charter schools at the Arizona legislature, will continue to be paid as a consultant to Benjamin Franklin… Meanwhile. the new nonprofit organization formed to buy the schools will have little cash, requiring it to borrow the $2.8 million from Farnsworth in order to have 60 days of working capital…”

Farnsworth understands how to make money from the unregulated charter sector he has helped create through the legislature’s hands-off stance: “Farnsworth defended the sale, which makes him the latest charter-school owner in Arizona’s loosely regulated industry to receive a multimillion-dollar payday. Benjamin Franklin will have more long-term stability by converting from a for-profit business to a nonprofit company, he said.”  There is considerable confusion about whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but always operated by private contractors are private schools or some sort of public schools. It would seem very clear that Arizona legislator, Eddie Farnsworth, best understands the private, marketplace nature of the charter school network he founded.

Advertising, False Promises, and Mythology Too Frequently Distort the Truth in Charter School Marketplace

Finally, there is New Orleans, the city where in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina, school privatizers swooped in to create what they continue to brag is now a model all-charter school district.  But the charters in New Orleans were superimposed after the disaster of the hurricane on an already selective and unequal school district.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, was the city’s most selective.  And Fortier High School was transformed from a public high school that served its neighborhood into Lusher Charter High School, where students must submit an application.  We hear all about the myth of rising test scores among New Orleans’ charter high schools, but the fact that the top scoring schools are explicitly selective is usually left out of the story.  Until this week’s report from Jarvis DeBerry for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. DeBerry exposes the irony that several of these selective high schools recently won an equity award from the state of Louisiana: “Equity is the practice of making sure that everybody—no matter their identity, no matter their background, no matter their whatever—can fully access or participate in a particular thing… If you’re familiar with the concept, it will surprise you to learn that some New Orleans schools have… still managed to be named ‘Equity Honorees.’  These include schools that have eschewed oneApp in favor of deliberately byzantine admissions processes, schools that don’t provide buses to pick up and take home students without transportation and/or schools that only admit the most academically talented.”

DeBerry continues: “Lusher Charter School is selective admission and on top of that, has a notoriously complex application process. Lake Forest Elementary Charter School’s application process is also hard by design.  Benjamin Franklin High School is highly selective…  Given that these schools are designed to be difficult to access and are only letting in the most academically prepared students and/or those from families that are more well off, how does the state see fit to praise them for modeling equity?”

Equity and Liberty Conflict When It Comes to the Education Market

The Journey4Justice Alliance’s executive director, Jitu Brown understands that an equitable system of public schools—regulated by law to protect students’ rights and the public interest— is likely to be more adequate, stable, and equitable than what a competitive charter school market provides.  In his Forward to a report,  Failing “Brown v Board,” published in May 2018, Brown addresses Bruce Baker’s concern that in education, the charter school marketplace undermines equity even as it expands freedom of choice:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

DeVos Again Protects For-Profit Colleges and Federal Loan Servicing Contractor at Expense of Vulnerable Students

Betsy DeVos once announced: “Government really sucks.”  She doesn’t like government regulation, and she prefers to free up the marketplace.  One of the best places to observe her penchant for deregulation is in higher education, where she has regularly done everything she can to protect the investors in for-profit colleges and trade schools, where she has tried to step back from protecting students with federal loans, and where she has done little to oversee the giant government contractors who process federal student loans. Over the years, the issue of government regulation of these practices has been understood as necessary because almost all the money that props up the too-often-unscrupulous, for-profit colleges comes from the government, and because millions of students who borrow in good faith end up with huge debts run up for programs that have left them unemployable.

In her 2014 book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, Cornell University professor Suzanne Mettler tells us why we should worry about DeVos’s relaxing regulation of the for-profit higher education sector:  “Defenders of for-profit universities champion them as belonging to the private sector, but in recent years as in the past, they receive nearly all of their revenues from the U.S. federal government… Notably, these institutions, with only one exception, earned between 60.8 and 85.9 percent of their total revenues in 2010 from Title IV of the Higher Education Act, meaning predominantly student loans and Pell grants. The Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, gained between 85 and 88 percent of income from these sources in each of the past three years. Most received an additional 2 to 5 percent from military educational programs, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill…  In short, the for-profit schools are almost entirely subsidized by government.” (Degrees of Inequality, p. 168)

DeVos loses one battle on “Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment”

Earlier this fall, court challenges successfully blocked Betsy DeVos’s attempt to relax Obama-era rules designed to protect student borrowers. DeVos had attempted for over a year to delay imposition of a rule called “borrowers’ defense to repayment.” She had intended to replace it with her own more lenient regulation.  In mid-October, DeVos lost her bid to replace and weaken this regulation.  Michael Stratford reported for POLITICO: “A federal court cleared the way for Obama-era student loan borrower protections to take effect, handing a defeat to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after she fought for more than a year to stop the rules.” The Obama-era rule, now in effect after the court challenge, protects students’ rights to petition to have their loans forgiven if they are able to prove their college knowingly deceived them about its programming or if, like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, the college suddenly shuts down.  It also permits students who believe they have been defrauded to join together in class action lawsuits to have their debts forgiven.

DeVos Rescues Federal For-Profit College Accreditor Deemed Ineffective and Denied Standing During Obama Years

But despite her one failure to vanquish “borrowers’ defense to repayment,” DeVos persists in her attempt to protect the for-profit colleges, the loan servicing companies, and their investors.  The first of her recent actions was reinstating an agency whose role has been accrediting or denying accreditation to for-profit colleges, which cannot qualify to receive federal grants and loans unless they are accredited by a Department-approved agency. The Obama Department of Education had cracked down. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler explains: “In December 2016, the Obama administration ruled that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known as ACICS, should no longer be allowed to serve as a gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid. It concluded that the agency was incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight and ‘exhibited a profound lack of compliance’ with the ‘most basic’ responsibilities of an accreditor.”

ACICS was the agency that maintained accreditation for Corinthan Colleges and ITT Tech until the day they went under.  Inside Higher Education‘s Andrew Kreighbaum reports that many of the other institutions it once accredited were so shaky that they have shut down or now teeter on the edge: “The accreditor oversaw 245 colleges as of 2016.  But roughly 70 ACICS institutions who receive Title IV funds haven’t yet found recognition from another accreditor… And the largest chain of schools still overseen by the accreditor, Education Corporation of America, looks to be facing serious questions about its financial viability.”

DeVos left her decision up to Diane Auer Jones, a principal deputy undersecretary at the Department of Education.  Auer Jones once served as a senior vice president at Career Education, which operates for-profit colleges.  Meckler reports that last year career staff in the Department of Education conducted a review of ACICS and uncovered 57 findings of noncompliance, but it is not clear whether this review was considered in Auer Jones’ decision to reinstate ACICS.  ACICS, of course, claims it has corrected past practices.

Department of Education Refuses to Force Its Contractor for Loan Processing—Navient—to Disclose Cheaper Repayment Options to Student Borrowers

In a stunning expose, the Associated Press‘s Ken Sweet reports: “One of the nation’s largest student loan servicing companies may have driven tens of thousands of borrowers struggling with their debts into higher-cost repayment plans.  That’s the finding of a Department of Education audit of practices at Navient Corp., the nation’s third-largest student loan servicing company.”

The problem has arisen when students encounter financial problems and need to restructure their payment schedules. In a 2017 audit, the Department of Education discovered that Navient had boosted profits by “steering some borrowers into high-cost plans without discussing options that would have been less costly in the long run.” While the Department of Education uncovered the problem in its own 2017 audit, federal officials did not share the results of its investigation with plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against Navient in five states by student borrowers.

Here is how the review was conducted: “As part of their inquiry, DoE auditors listened in on about 2,400 randomly selected calls to borrowers from 2014-2017 out of a batch of 219,000.  On nearly one out of 10 of the calls examined, the Navient representative did not mention other options, including one type of plan that estimates the size of a monthly payment the borrower can afford based on their income.  Auditors wrote that many customer service representatives failed to ask questions to determine if such a plan known as an income-driven repayment plan might be more beneficial to the borrower.”

Sweet reports: “Navient disputed the audit’s conclusions…One point the company makes in its defense is that its contract with the education department doesn’t require its customer service representatives to mention all options available to the borrower.” “‘We are not aware of any requirement that borrowers receive all of their repayment options… on each and every call,’ the company said, adding that if the Department of Education chose to require all servicers to discuss income-driven repayment plans with all borrowers, the Department of Education needs to redo its contract with Navient.” Navient points out that its greatest business expense is paying its customer service agents.  The company’s profits depend on hiring the smallest possible number of service agents,.

Sweet describes Seth Frotman who quit in disgust last August as the highest-ranking Department of Education official in charge of student loans. Frotman  believes Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education’s refusal to push back against Navient’s practices is “outrageous.”  Frotman says, “In short, Navient, when confronted with evidence of its bad practices, is telling the government, ‘Pay us more money or take a hike.’  And it looks like the Department of Education took a hike.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) is expected to become the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. Scott commented last week on Betsy DeVos’s decision to reinstate the ineffective Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. But his comment also more broadly describes the the entire hands-off approach of Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education to regulating for-profit higher education in the public interest: “This decision will expose hardworking people across the country, including many service members and veterans, to schools that routinely leave students with crippling debt, non-transferable credits and no degree, while leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.”

Bruce Baker’s New Book on School Finance Develops a Scathing Critique of Charter School Expansion

Rutgers University school finance professor, Bruce Baker’s new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, covers the basics—how school finance formulas are supposed to work to ensure that funding for schools is adequate, equitable, and stable.

Baker also carefully refutes some persistent myths—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Baker does an excellent job of demonstrating that far more will be needed for our society appropriately to support school districts segregated not only by race, but also by poverty. The final sections of the book are a little technical. They explain the construction of a more equitable system that would drive enough funding to come closer to what is really needed in school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Baker’s book is especially important for updating a discussion of basic school finance theory to account for today’s realities.  He shows, for example, how the Great Recession undermined adequate and equitable funding of public schools despite that states had formulas in place that were supposed to have protected children and their teachers: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less… Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes, ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably, the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue.” (p. 4)

And for the first time in a school finance book, Baker explores the impact of two decades of charter school expansion on the funding of public schools. Although the conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate reformers has said that competition from independent charter school operators would introduce innovation and thereby stimulate academic improvement in public schools, not enough people have seriously considered the fiscal implications of slicing a fixed school funding pie into more pieces.  Baker examines these fiscal implications of charter school expansion from many perspectives.

Charters are, first, one of those “false promises of cost-free solutions”: “The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations/businesses… Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation (and that there may be technological solutions to human capital costs); that data driven human capital policies can increase efficiency/productivity by improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce. One core element of such reform posits that US schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools…. (T)here is little reason to believe that these magic elixirs will significantly change the productivity/efficiency equation or address issues of equity, adequacy, and equal opportunity.” (pp. 6-7)

Baker also speaks to the philosophical justification frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker addresses Betsy DeVos’s contention that, “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”  Here is Baker’s answer: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim also falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices 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… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Are charter schools more efficient at improving school achievement measured by test scores and are they fiscally efficient?  “(A) close look at high-profile charters in New York City indicates that their success reflects their access to additional resources and a fairly traditional approach to leveraging them… For each of these major operators… the share of low-income (those who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch ), English language learners, and children with disabilities is lower than for district schools, in some cases quite substantially.  On average, these schools are serving far less needy and thus less costly student populations than are the district schools.”  Baker provides details of major New York City charter networks’ expenditure patterns; what he finds is that the best-funded allocate their instructional expenses in a similar way to traditional public schools: “Collectively, these figures tell a story of high-profile, well-funded CMOs in New York City leveraging their additional resources in three logical and rather traditional ways by hiring more staff per pupil… by paying their teachers more at any given level of experience and degree; and… by paying them more to work longer school hours, days, and years.  In other words, they pay more people for more time.” He concludes: “Researchers, policy makers, pundits, pontificators, and even self-proclaimed thought leaders have yet to conjure some new ‘secret sauce’ or technological innovation that will greatly improve equity, adequacy, and efficiency.  Human resources matter, and equitable and adequate financial resources are necessary for hiring and retaining the teachers and other school staff necessary to achieve equal educational opportunity for all children.”  (pp. 68-79)

Charter schools were originally promised as an incubator for innovation. Are they really innovative?  “While modern charter schooling was conceived by some as a way to spur innovation—try new things, evaluate them, and inform the larger system—studies of the structures and practices of charter schooling find the sector as a whole not to be particularly ‘innovative.’  Analyses by charter advocates at the American Enterprise Institute have found that the dominant form of specialized charter school is the ‘no-excuses model,’ which combines traditional curriculum and direct instruction with strict disciplinary policies and school uniforms, and in some cases extended school days and years.” (p. 68)

Expansion of charter schools undermines equity in a school district: “Expanding the mix of providers and provider types in a common space is more likely to result in increased variations in quality and spending than in convergence toward equity. Private providers have widely varied access to outside resources and thus highly unequal opportunities for ‘revenue enhancement.’ The incentive for school operators is to pursue whatever means necessary to be the preferred school of choice (for the preferred students)—not to spend only what is needed to provide equal opportunity to achieve common outcomes… Much of the expansion of charter schooling occurred during the recession. States added schools while reducing overall funding, making inequitable choices on top of already unequal and inadequate systems… Cursory descriptive analyses, as well as more complex longitudinal models, suggest that states which most expanded their charter sectors are also the states which most reduced their overall effort toward financing public education. This is a disturbing finding in part because charter schools also rely on public financing. So reducing public financing affects negatively both district and charter schools. Also increasing the number of schools, holding enrollment constant, or shifting students from one sector to another creates additional costs….” (pp 157-158) (emphasis in the original)

How has the expansion of school choice undermined traditional public schooling? Here is the myth: “Everyone receives adequate schooling equitably by way of access to great choices,” writes Baker. “But it doesn’t work that way. The ‘best’ choices are often those that can garner additional resources. And the ‘best’ choices will always have limited availability due to numerous constraints on scaling up, including access to supplemental resources. Yet the myth that it might work has arguably fueled even greater systemwide resource deprivation in states that have most expanded choice.  The creation of dual systems of education serving common geographic spaces is further eroding equity and, to an extent, efficiency. Specifically, charter school expansion and citywide choice models, lacking advanced planning and sufficient regulation, complicate equitable resource distribution across schools and children, including access to space and transportation.  Managing equity in a competitive system using alternative models of governance and operations for both day-to-day activities of schooling and for access to and maintenance of capital assets (land, buildings, equipment) is complex, to say the least. Policy makers have managed those complexities poorly and have allowed the dual systems to exacerbate rather than ameliorate inequality.” (p. 136)

Bruce Baker’s critique of the expansion of publicly funded but privately managed charter schools deserves attention from policy makers. Advocates need to study and internalize the details of the argument Baker develops against marketplace school choice in Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.