Bill Lager, David Brennan, and Ron Packard: Swindlers Stealing Tax Dollars from Ohio Public Schools

While the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Supreme Court have finally ended the career of William Lager, the founder of Ohio’s huge, notorious online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s legislature has never passed adequate laws to protect taxpayers and students from unscrupulous swindlers operating charter schools.  Besides Bill Lager, another notorious charter school czar has disappeared from the scene this year.  David Brennan, founder of White Hat Management, a huge and shady for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO), has sold off all of his Ohio schools.  But it seems sales of Brennan’s Ohio schools are expanding Ron Packard’s EMO—the for-profit Accel Schools. Packard founded and, until 2014, served as CEO of K12 Inc., the nation’s biggest operator of for-profit, online charter schools.

From the very beginning, Ohio’s biggest charter schools have been run by con men. They paid off  legislators to allow them to cheat the public at the expense of the public schools. This story traces all the way back to 1991, and it is helpful to be reminded of the history. David Brennan, father of Ohio school privatization, was first and foremost a business entrepreneur, reports the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Doug Livingston: “Brennan made millions buying and selling manufacturing companies in Akron.  In the 1990s, he promised to unleash the private market on what he demonized as failing government schools. His tactics included $1 million in political contributions to elected GOP officials… Then Gov. George Voinovich put Brennan in charge of crafting Ohio’s private voucher program, which would eventually bring Brennan’s private schools more state funding per pupil than was flowing to 85 percent of Ohio’s traditional public schools.”

But when Brennan realized that operating charter schools would be far more profitable—under what had become, through the lobbying maneuvers of Brennan and his friends, extremely lax oversight laws—Brennan immediately switched his empire’s mission and became a charter school operator. Livingston continues: “The Akron Beacon Journal reported that flipping the switch from private to charter school on just one White Hat operation in Akron would generate $285,000 more a year for a mere 75 students. The school, reconstituted to get around a state law that banned converting private schools to charter schools,… was called Hope University Campus.  It would be the first of dozens of K-8 schools bearing the Hope Academy moniker. Brennan’s charter schools, ranking among the lowest performers in the state, were plagued from the start with allegations of padded enrollment and skirting accountability. Amid the bad publicity, White Hat lobbyists pushed for exemptions… In 2010, fed up with not knowing how White Hat was spending 97 percent of the tax dollars sent to each academically failing school, 10 (of Brennan’s White Hat) school boards sued the operator.  White Hat fought them to keep ownership of all the desks, computers, and assets bought over the years with public money.”

Livingston explains that White Hat’s Hope Academy (K-8) schools and his Life Skills Academy dropout recovery high schools, among the worst-rated in the state, have been losing ground as charters have expanded across Ohio. Now Brennan has closed or sold off the last of White Hat Management Company’s Ohio charter schools: “By June of this year, White Hat’s once prolific presence in Ohio had shriveled to a single online school—Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OHDELA)—and 10 ‘Life Skills’ centers, which deliver computer-based GED courses to academically faltering teens and young adults.”  Over the summer, the Life Skills Academies have either been sold to other operators or shut down.

Now that swindlers, Bill Lager and David Brennan, have left the Ohio charter school scene, one wishes Ohioans could be reassured that unscrupulous online schools and shady dropout recovery academies are gone for good.  But Ron Packard, a former banker, knows a lucrative opportunity when he sees one. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The once-mighty White Hat charter school empire continues being dismantled, with its longtime e-school—the Ohio Distance Learning Academy (OHDELA)—being turned over to the fast-growing Accel charter school network. The move puts Accel founder Ron Packard, the founder and former CEO of the giant national e-school company K12 Inc., back in the online education business after four years away… As White Hat’s presence shrinks, Packard’s is growing incredibly quickly. After resigning as K12 CEO in early 2014, Packard has been taking over operations of charter schools across Ohio, usually by negotiating to assume management of financially-struggling schools. He snagged several strong schools from the Mosaica network first, then more than a dozen low-performing White Hat schools. When Cleveland’s I Can charter network had financial trouble in early 2017, he took over those schools. And earlier this year, he added several more previously run by Cambridge Education Group, a company with White Hat ties.  Even before the OHDELA transfer, Packard and Accel were running 37 charter schools across Ohio with about 10,700– students…. OHDELA adds another 1,100 students.  Accel is also starting new schools this fall in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Lorain. That combined enrollment makes Accel bigger than all but 13 school districts in Ohio…”

In a follow-up report, O’Donnell explains that Packard claims to have learned from the problems of K12 Inc. online schools. Packard says he plans to require more in-person meetings between students at OHDELA to keep online students engaged, to reduce the kind of advertising that pushed enrollment growth at K12 over academic priorities, and to make a a greater effort to engage students who are not self-motivated.  However, as O’Donnell interviews Packard, it is clear that while Packard admits there were failings at K12 Inc., the corrections in his Accel network will be limited. Packard tells O’Donnell: “The overwhelming majority of kids were coming in way behind grade level… and they didn’t have support of households. The model needed to change to reflect that.” But O’Donnell continues, paraphrasing Packard: “Those students, he said, need far more help from the school. That’s why to have students meet with staff more often. It won’t be at the level of ‘blended’ schools, which have students take lessons in person a couple days a week, while working online other days. He envisions monthly visits or having students come to a school for tutoring and to take ongoing tests of their progress.”

As his for-profit Accel management company takes over the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, I guess Packard expects to provide students with at least a bit more personal attention.

I hope the recent explosion of Ohio’s ECOT scandal will motivate Ohio’s legislators to enact more than just a bit of added oversight to try to reign in swindlers who continue to figure out ways to suck tax dollars out of state coffers and the budgets of Ohio’s more than 600 local public school districts.

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DeVos Cancels Gainful Employment Rule, Deregulates For-Profit Colleges and Trade Schools

In late July, the NY Times Erica Green reported that her newspaper had obtained a plan by the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the Obama Department of Education’s “gainful employment rule,” which has denied federal loans and grants to for-profit colleges and trade schools whose graduates were so poorly prepared they were unable to secure jobs by which they could pay off their sizeable student loan debts.

On Friday, Green followed up.  Now two weeks later Green documents that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now formally implemented her plan to eliminate the Obama-era rule designed to protect student borrowers from for-profit colleges that had made inflated claims about job preparation: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos formally moved Friday to scrap a regulation that would have forced for-profit colleges to prove that the students they enroll are able to attain decent-paying jobs, the most drastic in a series of policy shifts that will free the scandal-scarred, for-profit sector from safeguards put in effect during the Obama era.  In a written announcement posted on its website, the Education Department laid out its plans to eliminate the so-called gainful employment rule, which sought to hold for-profit and career college programs accountable for graduating students with poor job prospects and overwhelming debt.”

In her important 2014 book, Degrees of Inequality, Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains that private, for-profit colleges and trade schools aren’t really so private after all: “Ironically, despite being regarded as part of the private sector, the for-profits are financed almost entirely by American taxpayers. They enroll about one in ten college students today, but utilize one in four dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the predominant source of federal student aid.  A 1998 law permits the for-profits to gain up to 90 percent of their total revenues from this single source. Other government funds do not count against this threshold, so the for-profits also receive 37 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense tuition assistance benefits. In recent years, this combination of public funds has provided the for-profit schools with 86 percent of their total revenue, to the tune of roughly $32 billion annually. So, we have substandard educational institutions producing many students who can’t get good jobs, costing taxpayers billions. Question: who is actually benefiting from this arrangement?  Answer: the businesspersons who own them and their corporate shareholders. The largest for-profits, though subsidized almost entirely by government, are now publicly traded on Wall Street… Even in the midst of the financial downturn in 2008, the top companies enjoyed a 4 percent growth in their stocks, while the S&P 500 declined by 39 percent.” (Degrees of Inequality, pp. 2-3).

Arne Duncan cracked down. Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute were put out of business.

Now Betsy DeVos has announced she is rolling back the regulation that sought to stop the for-profit college rip-off. She published the Department’s new proposal late last week. A period will follow when the Department will accept comments.  The final regulation must be published by November 1, 2018, reports Michael Stratford of POLITICO. The new rule will go into effect on July 1, 2019.

Erica Green reports that DeVos plans to publish employment data about the graduates of all American institutions of higher learning—not just the for-profit career and technical institutes.  She quotes DeVos: “Students deserve useful and relevant data when making important decisions about their education post-high school. That’s why instead of targeting schools simply by their tax status, this administration is working to ensure students have transparent, meaningful information about all colleges and all programs. Our new approach will aid students across all sectors of higher education and improve accountability.”

Green adds: “The Obama administration encouraged the expansion of public community colleges as it forgave at least $540 million in taxpayer-funded student debt for for-profit graduates who could not find decent jobs with the degrees or certificates they had earned..”

The gainful employment rule had been only partly implemented prior to the time DeVos took over the Department of Education. Green reports: “The 2014 rule required for-profit institutions to measure how much debt their students incurred against their post-graduation earnings and ordered them to disclose their failing marks in advertisements.  A year ago, Ms. DeVos delayed those parts of the regulations from taking effect.  But one part of the rule that had already been put into place has identified hundreds of failing programs, many of which went on to shut their doors after they were measured against the new standards according to an analysis by New America Foundation. That regulation will also be eliminated.  In the first assessment of college graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratios, about 800 programs, or 10 percent of those examined, had failed to meet the requirements laid out in the gainful employment rule, the department announced; of those, 98 percent were for-profits.”

Green quotes Steve Gunderson, president of a for-profit college trade association—a lobbyist for the for-profit colleges—admitting that the Gainful Employment Rule has made an important contribution: “The reality is every school that has a program that was failing gainful employment metrics—and they knew it couldn’t be fixed—they’ve already closed. The sector today is so much better.”

Consumer protection advocates have been very supportive of efforts to crack down on the for-profit career and tech-training institutes.  Eighteen state attorneys general have sued the Department of Education under DeVos’s leadership for failing to enforce the rule against predatory for-profit institutions.  Green quotes New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood: “Rescinding the rule is a derogation of the department’s duty to protect students from exploitation and taxpayers from the waste of federal funds.”

Responses from members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to DeVos’s action to cancel the gainful employment rule follow party lines.  Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican and chair of the committee, said: “Secretary DeVos’s regulation proposes to end a clumsy rule that consumed 945 pages to define two words in the higher education law and targeted just one segment of our 6,000 colleges and universities.”

Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat, and ranking member, castigated DeVos’s action: “Her extreme proposal to rescind this rule is further proof that there is no line Secretary DeVos won’t cross to pad the pockets of for-profit colleges—even leaving students and taxpayers to foot the bill.”

In her 2014 book, Suzanne Mettler explains how the Obama-Duncan era gainful employment rule came into being in 2011 and how it was intended to work: “At last, in early June 2011—after three rounds of hearings and discussions and almost one hundred meetings with lobbyists and others, the Department of Education released the final version of the gainful employment rule. The essence of the rule was that for students of any particular school to use Title IV funds, programs had to meet at least one of three criteria indicating that the training they provide genuinely leads to gainful employment.  First, at least 35 percent of a school’s former students, roughly one out of three, must be successfully repaying their loans. As education secretary Arne Duncan put it, ‘We’re asking companies that get up to 90 percent of their profits from taxpayers’ dollars to be at least 35 percent effective.’ Second, as a measure of debt-to-income ratio, the estimated annual payment of the typical former students could not surpass 30 percent of his or her average discretionary income. Third, as an alternate measure of debt-to-income ratio, the annual payment from such borrowers must not be greater than 12 percent of their total earnings. Regulated institutions were required to disclose such information to prospective students, enabling them to make informed choices about attendance. Also, the final rules dictated that programs would not lose eligibility unless they failed to meet these criteria for three out of four years, rather than in one single year. The penalty for schools violating these principles would be the loss of eligibility for federal student aid programs for at least three years.” (Degrees of Inequality, pp. 183-184)

Beware Democrats Trying to Burnish the Reputation of Corporate School Reform

Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support.  This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?

For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top.  To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.

The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist.  She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers.  She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats.  She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.

Today:  Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project.  Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.

Warning:  Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations.  Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.

Don’t be fooled by DFER:  One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause.  Later DFER formed affiliates across several states.  In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new  communications strategy.

In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’  These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”

Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience.  In this case marketing means making the language vague.  Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.

Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.”  From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education.  (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)

Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed.  It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.”  And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.

Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work:  Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010.  In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse.  Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.

These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do.  Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it.  As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back.  We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs.  Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that.  There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”

Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really?  Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”

Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t…  He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”

Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle…  Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017.  And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”

Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own.  Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation.  Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.

It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools.  Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps.  In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.

It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.

What Is the Legacy of Renaissance 2010 School Choice in Chicago?

On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.

Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools.  It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”

The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions.  Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”

The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What was Renaissance 2010?  After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.

The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.

Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”  The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s  Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.  A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance.  Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, FailingBrown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance:  “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.”

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) Reaches the End of the Line

This post is an obituary, but it will not celebrate the life of the deceased.  Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) finally died yesterday morning when it exhausted its final appeal—this time in a 4-2 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes the decision: “The ECOT online charter school has lost its appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court and its main chance at avoiding having to pay back $80 million it received for students it couldn’t prove had participated enough in their online classes.  With a 4-2 vote, the court backed the state school board and Ohio Department of Education’s decision to require e-schools to show student participation in classes to justify state funding, not just student enrollment. The ruling reinforces findings that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was overpaid $60 million one year and $20 the next and leaves the now-closed school—and potentially ECOT founder William Lager—still on the hook for the overpayments.”

The school has not been providing services for any students since it was shut down by its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, on January 18th. Its assets were all sold off at auction during May and June. But William Lager, its founder and the man who profited grandly from the companies he owned that provided all of ECOT’s services, said he would resurrect the school if the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Fortunately yesterday, four of the justices ruled to uphold the state’s effort to recoup $60 million, which the state has not yet been able to recover.

There is a lesson to be learned from ECOT’s survival for nearly two decades—from 2001-2018:  In Ohio, it is virtually impossible to regulate charter schools to protect their students and the public’s investment of tax dollars. Money speaks in a state where profits are to be made even from not-for-profit charter schools—because the nonprofit schools can hire for-profit companies owned by school officials. Then the people making all the money off the charters can invest their profits right back into campaign contributions to the legislators and gubernatorial candidates and elected state supreme court justices who then neglect to impose oversight. In these conditions, it is virtually impossible to protect the public.

The ECOT lesson also involves noticing today’s absence of checks and balances in Ohio’s government. Ohio is a super-SUPER-majority Republican state. The Ohio Senate and House are controlled by two-thirds Republican majorities; Governor John Kasich is a Republican; and the elected Ohio Supreme Court is all-Republican.

The problem is perfectly clear in yesterday’s 4-2 decision of the Ohio Supreme Court. During oral arguments in February, when ECOT’s attorney argued that Ohio law requires online charter schools to document a student’s enrollment in a school but the law does not require the school to document the student’s active participation, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor rose to the occasion.  Noticing something was wrong with the logic, she wondered aloud, “How is that not absurd?” Yesterday, O’Connor and three other justices upheld the state’s right to crack down on faulty attendance reporting by the online school.

But two of the Court’s justices decided against the state and for ECOT. One of the dissenters is Terrence O’Donnell, who had been reported to have a conflict of interest due to political contributions from ECOT. The Toledo Blade‘s Mark Reiter explained in February, just before oral arguments in the case: “Two groups are seeking the removal of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell from hearing a case involving the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow because of political contributions he received from the founder of the defunct charter school. Common Cause Ohio and Progress Ohio filed a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to investigate Justice O’Donnell’s relationship with ECOT’s founder William Lager and his ability to remain impartial. The complaint calls into question Mr. Lager’s campaign donation of $3,450 in 2012 to Justice O’Donnell and the speech he gave for the online charter school’s commencement in June, 2013.”

Sure enough, the dissent parrots the argument of ECOT’s attorney. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel report: “The dissenting O’Donnell and Kennedy wrote that no law ties online-school funding to student participation… ECOT attorneys (had) argued that the state illegally changed the rules on how to count students in the middle of a school year, and that state law did not require students to participate in class work in order to be counted for funding purposes.”

The school was finally shut down in January when the Ohio Department of Education documented $80 million the state had paid ECOT for students ECOT claimed were enrolled, but who were not participating for the required 20 hours per week (or 920 hours per year) in the online school’s program and curriculum. The state legislature began to strengthen charter school oversight in 2015, and the $80 million overpayment the state has been trying to claw back is for only the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

In this 2018 election season, when current Attorney General Mike DeWine is running for governor and when current State Auditor Dave Yost is running for attorney general, there have been attempts to make it appear as though entrenched Republicans weren’t looking the other way for all these years since 2001.  Attorney General Mike DeWine has suddenly found a legal precedent to recover profits from ECOT founder William Lager’s privately held companies.

On July 27, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported: “The school closed early this year with little money remaining, but about $60 million not recovered. Today’s filing expands DeWine’s… argument that ECOT profits for Lager and the two companies are forfeit because Lager, as an ECOT official, could not have the school hire companies he also owns. That’s a conflict of interest, DeWine says, and legally ‘corrupt.’  Combined, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management did about $200 million in business with the now-closed school over multiple years.”  O’Donnell adds: “ECOT founder William Lager’s multiple homes are in the crosshairs of the state, as it tries to recover $60 million in state aid overpayments the school still owes. Among them, a Key West vacation home Lager purchased for $3.7 million in 2014 and a waterside home on Seneca Lake he bought for $433,500.”

It will be interesting to see if DeWine’s recent filings against Lager are only election-year hype, or whether—after the November election—the state will continue seriously pursuing recovery of money stolen by ECOT.  Remember that Lager operated his scam for 17 years, and the state is merely trying to recover overpayments for the 2015-16 and the 2016-17 school years.

There is a second and more encouraging lesson from the ECOT scandal, however. Week after week, month after month, Ohio’s major newspapers have shamed the legislature and the Ohio Department of Education and have relentlessly demanded that someone hold William Lager and his e-school accountable. Those responsible for the demise of ECOT include the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel, Catherine Candisky, Randy Ludlow, and Darrel Rowland—and reporters at the state’s other newspapers. Finally we owe thanks to former Plain Dealer editorial page director, Brent Larkin, now a Sunday columnist who has penned a series of the most scathing columns I’ve ever read—month after month and year after year.

Most recently in early June, Larkin complained: “Legislators in Ohio have long stood accused of serving not their constituents, but the people who fund their campaigns. But in the last eight years, House Republicans seem to have reached new lows in their ethical depravity… In April, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned in the wake of revelations he may be the target of an FBI probe… including ties involving the insidious payday lending industry. Before that, the House was ruled by Bill Batchelder, who spent four years protecting some of the most unprincipled bottom-feeders ever to prowl Statehouse corridors. Then, lo and behold, some of those who received favorable treatment, including the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, became clients of the Batchelder lobbying firm… ECOT was once the nation’s largest online charter school. And arguably its worst… From 2001 to 2016, ECOT raked in more than $1 billion in taxpayer money.  In return, ECOT founder Bill Lager and his flunkies contributed more than $2 million to campaigns of Ohio politicians, a huge majority of that going to Republicans. That money seemed to buy protection from a legislature that required only token policing of online charters.”

This blog has tracked Ohio’s ECOT scandal here.

New Rules Proposed by DeVos Would Reduce Student Loan Forgiveness, Favor For-Profit Colleges

Betsy DeVos is busy eliminating regulation of for-profit colleges and reducing protection of the rights of students who use federal loans to attend them. President Obama’s administration had tried to crack down, but DeVos and her Department of Education are cozier with the for-profit college sector.

Last Wednesday, Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules to set the parameters for loan forgiveness when students file claims alleging their colleges have defrauded them. Under the new “borrowers’ defense to repayment” rules, DeVos expects the Department of Education to save money—approximately $700 million annually. Then on Thursday, the NY Times obtained a copy of draft plans to end what has been called the “gainful employment rule,” which has been used to shut down for-profit trade schools and colleges when their students are so unemployable they cannot pay off their federal loans.

Borrowers Defense to Repayment — Advocates for protecting the rights of student borrowers say the rules released last week will make it much harder for students who believe they have been defrauded to have their student loans cancelled. The very existence of many for-profit colleges depends on a steady revenue stream of federally backed student loans. After Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute were shut down, thousands of their former students filed claims for cancellation of loans used to pay tuition for programs that had been terminated.

For the Washington Post, Laura Meckler and Danielle Douglas-Gabrielle explain: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved Wednesday to make it harder for students who say they were defrauded by colleges to erase their debts, rolling back Obama-era regulations that for-profit colleges saw as threatening their survival. The proposed rules… require students to prove schools knowingly deceived them if they want their federal loans canceled. And it scuttled an Obama administration provision that allowed similar claims to be processed as a group. Instead, students will have to prove their claims individually. The rules are DeVos’s rewrite of an Obama-era regulation published in 2016 and part of that administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges that critics say prey on vulnerable students. In ways big and small, the new version makes it harder for students to win debt forgiveness… The department aims to publish a final rule by Nov. 1 so that it can take effect for loans originating after July 1, 2019. The agency will allow 30 days for public comments on the proposal.”

Consumer and borrower advocates believe the standard of proof under the DeVos rules proposed last week favors the for-profit college industry and fails adequately to protect students. The NY Times’ Erica Green reports that DeVos has filled the positions who regulate for-profit colleges with former employees and advocates for the for-profits: “DeVos advisers include her senior counselor, Robert S. Eitel, and Diane Auer Jones, a senior adviser on postsecondary education, both of whom worked for Career Education Corporation, a company that operates for-profit colleges, and reached a $10.25 million settlement with the New York attorney general over charges that it had inflated graduates’ job placement rates. The department’s general counsel, Carlos G. Muñiz, worked as a consultant for the company.”

POLITICO‘s Benjamin Wermund adds that the newly proposed rules will reduce loan reimbursements to students whose colleges suddenly close as long as those colleges provide a phase out that allows students to complete some of their coursework: “Under the plan, the Education Department would no longer provide “closed school” discharges to students if the school offers an approved “teach-out” or a wind-down of their program — a move the agency predicts would reduce the amount of closed school discharges by $96.5 million each year.”

The newly proposed rules require students to prove they were intentionally defrauded. Meckler and Douglas-Gabrielle report: “Consumer advocates also said it is unrealistic to expect borrowers to prove that their college intended to mislead them. ‘How are borrowers supposed to prove intent? They don’t have any discovery rights. They don’t have the ability to get testimony from the person who lied to them about what they knew or didn’t know,’ said Abby Shafroth, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.”

Advocates for protection of borrower’s rights criticize the proposed rules because they require that students filing complaints submit to arbitration:  Green explains: “The proposal also restores ‘pre-dispute arbitration agreements,’ which allow colleges to force students to sign waivers saying they will settle their disputes with institutions through arbitration. The Obama administration had removed those agreements from its rule because they essentially forced to students to sign away their rights to sue and file federal claims, and shielded student complaints from the public.”

Gainful Employment Rule — The Obama administration began to crack down on trade schools’ unscrupulous recruiting practices and fraudulent promises that students would be prepared for jobs when the colleges’ programs were weak or worthless. Last Thursday, the NY Times Erica Green obtained a draft plan from the U.S. Department of Education to eliminate the Obama “gainful employment rule” altogether.

Green explains: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plans to eliminate regulations that forced for-profit colleges to prove that they provide gainful employment to the students they enroll, in what would be the most drastic in a series of moves that she has made to free the for-profit sector from safeguards put in effect during the Obama era. The so-called gainful employment regulations put into force by the Obama administration cut off federally guaranteed student loans to colleges if their graduates did not earn enough money to pay them off. That sent many for-profit colleges and universities into an economic tailspin because so many of their alumni were failing to find decent jobs. The Obama regulations — years in the making and the subject of a bitter fight that pulled in heavy hitters from both parties who backed the for-profit schools — also required such schools to advertise whether or not they met federal standards for job placement in promotional materials and to prospective students.”

Green continues, describing implications of  the Department’s plan to eliminate the “gainful employment rule”: “The move would punctuate a series of decisions to freeze, modify and now eliminate safeguards put in place after hundreds of for-profit colleges were accused of widespread fraud and subsequently collapsed, leaving their enrolled students with huge debts and no degrees. The failure of two mammoth chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes, capped years of complaints that some career-training colleges took advantage of veterans and other nontraditional students, using deceptive marketing and illegal recruitment practices.”

Green reports that the department would continue efforts by the Obama administration to make available some information about for-profit colleges, but far less than the Obama administration required, and the Department of Education would no longer enforce the rule by withholding federal loans: “The existing database, created under the Obama administration, includes such data for more than 7,000 institutions, but it does not include program-by-program success rates for such certificates as nursing assistance, cosmetology or auto maintenance, nor does it contain the detailed employment statistics that the gainful employment regulations targeted… (I)t would eliminate the powerful threat to withhold access to guaranteed student loans from colleges whose graduates cannot find the work to pay them back. Few higher-education institutions could survive without federal student aid.”

DeVos’s plans to reduce regulations of for-profit colleges and trade schools should not be surprising. Not only has DeVos continued to hire former administrators from the for-profit college sector as well as lobbyists for the sector, but from the beginning, DeVos has shown her intent to roll back efforts begun by the Obama administration to protect the tax investment in student loans and to protect students from predatory recruiting by for-profit colleges whose programs are so weak that their students have been unemployable.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss quotes Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who, when presented with the new rule changes, wondered, “Why would anyone deliberately hurt students who have been screwed over by scam schools?”

AFT Sums Up Ten Years of Public School Underfunding and Neglect with Details from Each State

The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states.  It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.

The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures.  The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”

Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed.  Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage.  Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.”  The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.  And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”

Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough.  California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report.  But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended.  Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”

One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’  Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”

Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment.  To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts.  For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”

The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state.  It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.

What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities?  The report paints a worrisome financial picture.  What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.