How ALEC and Promoters of Privatization Are Helping Legislators Rip Off State Governments

In her story on Iowa’s tuition tax credit program in yesterday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein explains: “Iowa is one of 31 states where legislators have proposed creating or expanding school choice programs this year, without Washington even lifting a finger.”

Knowing that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a great fan of school privatization through vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and the expansion of unregulated charter schools, we might wonder how and why all this school choice expansion Goldstein describes is happening without any assistance at all from DeVos and Congress.

Goldstein mentions one of the primary factors, the American Legislative Exchange Council: “In 2013 and 2014, the most recent years for which financial disclosures are available, several organizations associated with Ms. DeVos invested over $7 million in school choice lobbying efforts in states now considering new bills.  Americans for Prosperity, the activist group founded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council are also pushing private school choice in statehouses across the country.”

One cannot possibly review too often the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state politics. If your state legislature is one of the 31 states now considering some form of school vouchers, your representatives are probably considering one of ALEC’s model laws.  ALEC is what is known as a bill mill, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate member lobbyists and representatives of far-right advocacy organizations promoting school privatization; these people collaborate in writing model bills that can then be introduced by ALEC-members in the legislative chambers of the 50 states. Members of ALEC’s Education Committee have cooked up a number of model bills to choose from: the Special Needs Scholarship Act, the Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit.  The outrageous irony about ALEC is that, despite a long-running legal challenge from Common Cause, it is still considered by the IRS to be an educational, not a lobbying, organization.

Goldstein reminds us that vouchers don’t really serve very many students across the United States, despite that they drain a lot of money from states’ public education budgets: “The number of American students benefiting from private school programs now is relatively small. Estimates by EdChoice, the organization founded by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who first introduced the idea of vouchers, put the number at 446,000 this year, out of a total school-age population of 56 million. Three million attend public charter schools, which Ms DeVos also has championed and which generally do not accept vouchers.” (This blog has disputed proponents of charters who dub the schools, “public.” Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are always privately operated and have been considered in several court challenges as private contractors.  Because charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, students at charter schools have no need to carry a tuition voucher of any kind.)

Goldstein profiles a parent, Mary Kakayo in Des Moines and her participation in Iowa’s already-operating, tuition tax credit program.  Ms. Kakayo would also like to benefit from the newer education savings account program now being considered by Iowa’s legislature: “Tuition credit scholarships like the one that helps pay tuition for Ms. Kakayo’s daughter…. allow individuals and corporations to receive credit on their state income taxes for donations to nonprofits that provide tuition aid to students. Iowa’s program, currently used by 11,000 students, has income limits—$73,000 for a family of four—and the average scholarship award is only $1,583.” We learn that the Kakayos personally pay tuition of $85 per month on top of their tuition tax credit.

Goldstein continues: “Iowa is one of the states where legislators this year proposed education savings accounts, an even more expansive benefit. The accounts (would) give parents state money each year—under one proposal, in the form of a $5,000 debit card—that they can use on private school tuition, home schooling costs, online education or tutoring.  Ms. Kakayo said she would welcome further tuition support from the state, which would allow her to save money for college for Alma and her younger sister….  Under one proposal, after a student graduates from high school, any money left in the account could be used for tuition at in-state colleges.”

Goldstein describes the concerns of opponents of the tuition tax credit program and the proposal being considered for education savings accounts: “Opponents have called the programs a giveaway to religious institutions. All but five of the 140 schools currently participating in the (Iowa) program are Catholic or Protestant, and the Diocese of Des Moines is among those lobbying for the expansion… Opponents also point out that private schools are allowed to reject some of the neediest students, like those who have severe disabilities or are lagging behind their grade level.”

Goldstein examines the financial implications for Iowa’s public schools: “Under the most far-reaching proposal, the new education savings accounts would be available to every child in Iowa without income caps, and include the over 40,000 who are already enrolled in private schools or home schooling.”  She adds: “School districts and some legislators also were concerned that if parents of privately educated students suddenly had access to thousands of dollars in state education money, public schools could be significantly affected financially.”  So far no bill being considered in Iowa has moved far enough for a vote in either of Iowa’s legislative chambers.

To see what might happen if Iowa were to expand these programs, one need only look to Indiana. In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported:  “Indiana’s legislature and then-governor Mitch Daniels first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year.” After Mike  Pence was elected governor in 2012, “Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.” Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago that the number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

Launching vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts as part of a state’s education plan is a zero-sum game. Vouchers and tax credits are always a way to redirect some of a state’s public school budget to a privatized alternative. It has never happened that legislators have increased taxes significantly to cover a new voucher program and at the same time protect a state’s investment in the public schools. School privatization undermines the public system even as a parallel system of schools is created. Indiana demonstrates clearly just how vouchers and tax credits are likely to swallow a state public school budget to pay private school tuition for families who have never even considered enrolling their children in public schools.

Fraud and corruption have not been the major problem with vouchers and tuition tax credit programs. The financial scandals have been more prevalent in the charter school sector where money is to be made by the for-profit management companies—profits that can be invested through political contributions that block sufficient oversight by state government to prevent self-dealing that violates the public interest.  Vouchers have primarily provided tuition  to religious schools, which have been less involved in overt ripoffs of tax dollars. However, in the NY Times earlier this month, Kevin Carey profiled a problem in one state where vouchers have involved self dealing and enormous profits:

“Steve Yarbrough is one of the most powerful men in Arizona. As president of the State Senate, he has promoted a range of conservative policies, including a tuition tax credit system that provides over $100 million per year to finance vouchers for private schools.. But Mr. Yarbrough is not just a champion of tax credit vouchers. He also profits from them personally… State tax credit voucher programs have grown rapidly in recent years. The number of students receiving them increased to 256,000 this year from about 50,000 in 2005. Arizona has one of the oldest and largest programs… The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) is one of the state’s largest voucher-granting groups. From 2010 to 2014… the group received $72.9 million in donations, all of which were ultimately financed by the state. Arizona law allows the group to keep 10 percent of those donations to pay for overhead. In 2014, the group used that money to pay its executive director $125,000. His name?  Steve Yarbrough… Yet the group doesn’t do all the work involved with accepting donations and handing out vouchers. It outsources data entry, computer hardware, customer service, information processing, award notifications and related personnel expenses to a private for-profit company called HY Processing.  The group paid HY Processing $636,000 in 2014, and millions of dollars in total over the last decade. The owner of HY Processing? Steve Yarbrough, along with his wife, Linda, and another couple.  (The “Y” in “HY Processing stands for ‘Yarbrough.’)”

Carey explains: “(I)t’s not clear that states can be relied upon to prevent self-dealing. Mr. Yarbrough’s personal financial interest in tax credit vouchers first received wide attention in 2009…. Yet in the years since, Mr. Yarbrough has continued to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from overhead funds.”  And as president of the Arizona senate, “He also supported the expansion of the tax-credit system.”

Last week when the PBS NewsHour profiled Indiana’s school voucher program, Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s public school superintendent warned: “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.” “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Trump’s Proposed 2018 Budget for K-12 Education: What It Means

Yesterday the Trump administration released what’s being called its “skinny” budget.  A president’s budget proposal does NOT work like an executive order, however.  It is merely a declaration of the president’s priorities, and it must be discussed and enacted by Congress, which then appropriates the money.

And this is a budget that outlines only what is called “discretionary” spending. That is the part that actually gets appropriated every year, and it is a very small part of the federal budget, which mostly goes to “mandatory” programs, another term for entitlements.

A large part of discretionary spending is for the military. And the military is definitely a priority of Donald Trump’s.  Yesterday’s budget proposal adds $52 billion to the military and a 7 percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security and a 6 percent increase for Veterans Affairs.

VOX explains the nature of “non-defense” federal discretionary spending: “This is the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low-and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.” Yesterday’s budget cuts non-defense discretionary spending in order for the federal government to ask for large increases in the military and homeland security.

Here are just some of the percentage losses reported by the NY Times for departments whose programs are likely directly to affect children and families: Education, -14 percent; Health and Human Services, -16 percent; and Housing and Urban Development, -12 percent.  The cuts are likely to affect public housing and subsidies for housing vouchers, may affect support for homeless shelters, and will eliminate after-school programs.  Being erased altogether are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps very poor people pay gas bills in the winter and the Legal Services Corporation. School lunch, school breakfast and summer feeding programs have been made into mandatory spending and are not covered by this budget. We’ll have to watch for a later, more detailed budget to observe these programs, and we can hope they will be spared. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is slightly reduced from $6.4 billion to $6.2 billion in Trump’s proposed budget. There are also significant cuts to health programs and much debate currently about the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal reporter explains that Trump proposes to cut the federal education budget significantly and also to shift money around to expand school choice (support for privatization): “President Donald Trump’s first budget seeks to slash the Education Department’s roughly $68 billion budget by $9 billion, or 13 percent in the coming fiscal year, whacking popular programs that help districts offer after-school programs, and hire and train teachers.  At the same time, it seeks a historic $1.4 billion federal investment in school choice, including new money for private school vouchers and charter schools, as well as directing $1 billion to follow students to the school of their choice.”

How does Trump seek to expand school choice?  Klein explains that the federal Charter Schools Program, which now has a $333 million budget would be expanded with an additional $168 million. You may remember that this program has been condemned for poor oversight on several occasions by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General.  In the budget proposal, Trump also proposes to add $250 million for what Klein describes as a “private school choice initiative that could provide vouchers for use at private schools, including religious schools.”

Trump also brings back the idea of “Title I Portability” in this budget proposal. According to Klein, “As part of the school choice push, the budget would include a $1 billion increase for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, currently funded at nearly $15 billion.”  Sounds wonderful so far, as Title I has long been under-funded, but Klein continues: “But that money would come with a twist: States and districts would be encouraged to use the funds for a system of ‘student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and Local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.'”  This is a public, not a private school voucher program.

There are, however, several problems with the Title I Portability program described here.

One is that, as Klein describes it, students would carry not only federal and state dollars if they transfer to another public school district through some sort of open enrollment program, but they would also carry local dollars from one school district to another.  Klein explains that the proposal for Title I Portability, “could be aided by a new pilot program created under ESSA that allows up to 50 districts to adopt a ‘weighted student funding formula’, combining federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.  English language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.”

The second problem is that the idea of Title I Portability undermines the purpose of Title I, as it was designed in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to provide supplementary funding for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. This is a big problem in our society that is becoming more segregated economically. Under Trump’s proposal, if a poor student were to transfer to a wealthier public school district, that child would carry her funding, including the extra Title I money.  The poor district, still in need of help because it is serving a mass of students in poverty, including students who are part of the county’s foster care system and very likely a significant homeless population, would lose the Title I dollars intended to help schools serving many very poor students.

It is important to add here that Title I Portability is a proposal pushed hard by the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, during the 2015 debate on the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Senator Alexander was unable to amass sufficient Congressional support to pass Title I Portability in 2015.  Remember that Trump’s budget proposal cannot be accomplished by him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.  It must be approved and appropriated by Congress.  Emma Brown in her Washington Post budget report explains, “That policy, known as ‘portability,’ was rejected in the Republican-led Senate during deliberations over the main K-12 education law in 2015.  Many Democrats see portability as the first step toward federal vouchers for private schools and argue that it would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty and profound needs to those in more affluent neighborhoods.”

Trump’s  proposed budget maintains funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at $13 billion, the 2017 amount; is silent on funding for the Office of Civil Rights, where many had expected to see cuts; reduces funding for two programs that promote college access; cuts support for preparing teachers and school leaders; and eliminates altogether the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides before- and after-school and summer programs. On the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the budget document declares: “The program lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives such as improving student achievement,”  an assessment that assumes raising test scores is the sole goal of after-school programs and summer enrichment programs. Full service, wraparound Community Schools frequently incorporate 21st Century Learning Center funding as the way to pay for the after-school and summer enrichment programs that are essential for children’s development.

There is an important additional set of facts to remember as background for President Trump’s proposed budget.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminds us: “This is the seventh year of austerity in non-defense appropriations, brought about by the multi-year appropriations caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and further reduced by ‘sequestration’ budget cuts under BCA. In 2017 the non-defense cap is frozen at the prior year’s level, and in 2018 it falls by $3 billion as enacted sequestration relief expires and full sequestration cuts take effect for the first time.  The 2018 cap is 16 percent below the comparable 2010 level when adjusted for inflation, and 21 percent below the 2010 level when adjusted for both inflation and population growth… Policy makers can alleviate the squeeze in 2018 and beyond by enacting legislation to reduce the sequestration cuts in those years and substitute alternative deficit-reduction measures—as they have done on a bipartisan basis for each year from 2013 through 2017.”

What this very technical analysis means is that Trump’s budget proposal which slashes next year’s non-defense discretionary spending is not the first time spending has been reduced in recent years. If Congress eventually passes a budget with the kind of cuts Trump outlines in the document released yesterday, the new budget reductions will deepen the cutbacks we have already been experiencing as Congress has prioritized reducing the deficit over programs that support our citizens.

Check Out PBS NewsHour’s Fine Report on School Vouchers

On Tuesday night, the PBS NewsHour in collaboration with Education Week reporter Lisa Stark aired a short and almost perfectly framed piece on Indiana’s school voucher program. Vice President Mike Pence, who is responsible for the rapid growth of Indiana school vouchers, is, like the new education secretary Betsy DeVos, an avid champion of parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools.

In her report, Stark captures the church-state issues by contrasting a public school, Fairfield Elementary School, with Emmaus Lutheran School, both in Fort Wayne. Vouchers and tax credits across the states fund primarily religious schools where the tuition is low enough to be offset by a modest voucher. The U.S. Supreme Court—in the controversial 2002, Zellman v. Simmons-Harris decision—found vouchers to be legal under the U.S. Constitution, though some state constitutions ban the expenditure of public dollars in religious schools. (This blog covered the church-state, First Amendment issues here.)

The most devastating impact of vouchers and tax credit programs, however, is to create a separate system that devours state public school budgets. Stark is clear from the outset: “At the heart of the debate (is) money, and how education dollars are divvied up.  Normally, the state distributes tax dollars to public schools to educate students. In Indiana, that’s about $5,800 per student. Vouchers change that. A portion of the money, the tax dollars, follow the student instead, allowing parents to use those dollars to pay tuition at the private school of their choice.”

Stark shows video footage of two nurturing, high-quality schools—a public school and Lutheran school, and she interviews their principals to learn about how the rapid growth of vouchers has affected each school. She also interviews Robert Enlow, the president of a national lobbying organization: EdChoice. Here is the background on EdCoice that Stark can’t cover in her short piece. EdChoice is today’s name for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the foundation started by Chicago free-market economist, Milton Friedman. Standford University professor, Martin Carnoy recently described Friedman’s role in promoting vouchers in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute: “As originally conceived by Milton Friedman (1955), the purpose of vouchers is to break the ‘monopoly’ of public schooling and extend families’ school choices for their children to include private education. Friedman, and voucher advocates more generally, argue that an education market that includes private schools competing on a financially level playing field with public schools, can deliver schooling more cheaply and satisfy consumer needs more effectively because private education is more efficient than public.” EdChoice’s Robert Enlow is introduced by Lisa Stark as an advocate, and advocate he does—beginning with this non sequitur: “We have seen over time our traditional school systems, because they’re based on zip code assignment and where you live, not providing always the best options for families.”

Stark also interviews Fort Wayne’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Wendy Robinson, who clarifies that the explosive growth of the voucher program in Indiana has not been neutral in its impact on the public schools: “If they took every student, if they were responsible for special ed, if they took ELL, if they were not allowed to pick and choose which kids they took, bring it on.” “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.”

In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post filled in more of the background that Stark couldn’t cover in a short piece for the NewsHour:  “Indiana’s legislature first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year. ‘Public schools will get first shot at every child,’ then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said at the time. ‘If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice.'”  Pence was elected governor in 2012, and, “Within months, Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.  By 2016, more than half of voucher recipients—52 percent—had never been in the state’s public school system.”

Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago on new data just released from the state. The number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

In January, Valerie Strauss published a column by Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s state school superintendent until she was defeated in last November’s election. Ritz summarizes how deeply implicated key members of the Trump administration are in a commitment to expand the ideology of the former Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice: “Indiana’s school choice program started under a prior governor as a small pilot, tailored to poor families that did not believe public schools were providing their children with an adequate education. Gov. Pence, however, escalated this program into a de facto entitlement for middle-upper-class families, pulling millions of dollars from our poorest schools so that these more affluent families could subsidize a private school education for their kids. Betsy DeVos wants to expand these voucher programs to as many states as possible. Pence likes to claim that Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. What he does not like to admit is that in five years of this program, Indiana’s taxpayers have sent more than $345 million to religious schools with little to no state oversight or regulation. These taxpayer dollars would have otherwise funded public education in our state.”

Here is what Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s school superintendent tells Lisa Stark in Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour interview: “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”  Please do watch this short piece on Indiana’s school voucher program.

HR 610 Vouchers Unlikely; DC Voucher Renewal Advances Without Protecting Vulnerable Students

There is a lot of fear about House Resolution 610, Iowa Rep. Steve King’s proposal for national school vouchers that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. But don’t be too fearful; this particular bill is unlikely to go anywhere.

Andrew Ujifusa, one of Education Week‘s primary reporters on federal education legislation, explains what this bill is: “The Choices in Education Act of 2017… would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main K-12 law, of which the Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version. It would create vouchers funded by Washington for parents to use at private schools if they chose to do so, or to use for home schooling their child. Under King’s legislation, the federal government would fund those vouchers through creating block grants for states… In addition, King’s bill would overturn nutritional standards published in 2012 for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs.”

The purpose of Ujifusa’s recent column is to calm widespread worries about the bill, concerns tied to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ declared commitment to launching a federal voucher program of some kind. Ujifusa reminds readers that DeVos cannot institute a voucher program without Congressional approval; he adds that rural members of Congress, “have expressed concern about a federal voucher program, in part because they don’t feel private school choice will help many of the children back home.” Ujifusa explains that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. King, does not sit on the House committee that oversees education, and the bill is legislatively complicated because another committee on agriculture would have to oversee the provisions of the bill to change the school lunch program. Ujifusa adds: “In fact, in 2015, the Senate rejected (Sen. Lamar) Alexander’s proposed amendment to ESSA that would have instituted a voucher program. And the Senate now has more Democratic lawmakers than it did then. It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote to create nationwide, federal vouchers.”

Congress will likely need a different vehicle from HR. 610 if it acts on Trump’s and DeVos’s promise of a federal voucher program. But Congress is moving forward with another voucher bill, one that has historically been opposed by Democrats, but a bill that has passed before and is likely to pass again in a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers. This is the renewal of the Washington, D.C. voucher program.  Keep in mind that Washington, D.C. does not have voting representation in Congress. That means this bill is the ultimate piece of legislation for other people’s children. Whatever happens with D.C. vouchers, there won’t be political consequences for any elected member of Congress.

Here is Jenna Portnoy explaining the D.C. voucher bill for the Washington Post: “The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, gives federal dollars to low-income D.C. students who want to transfer from struggling public schools to a private school. The program, created by Congress in 2004, also provides additional federal dollars to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.”

In a letter to leaders of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that is currently holding hearings on the SOAR Act, the National Coalition for Public Education, a coalition of 62 national organizations that has consistently opposed school vouchers, points out that the D.C. Voucher Program, in existence now for over a decade, has not been shown to improve education for the majority of the students who have participated: “All four of the congressionally mandated USED (U.S. Department of Education) studies that have analyzed the D.C. voucher program have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement. The USED studies further found that the voucher program had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety… GAO (Government Accountability Office) reports from both 2007 and 2013 document that the D.C. voucher program has repeatedly failed to meet basic and even statutorily required accountability standards. The 2013 report concluded that the administrator of the program has continually failed to ensure the program operated with basic accountability measures and quality controls and even failed to maintain adequate records on its own financial accounting… A special investigation conducted by the Washington Post found that many of the private schools in the program are not quality schools.”

Valerie Strauss published a column earlier this week about one of the SOAR Act’s greatest flaws: it does not protect the civil rights of participating students. “Democratic members offered amendments that would prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against students on the basis of ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity’ and requiring each voucher school to provide every student with special needs ‘with all of the applicable protections available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.’ They were voted down along party lines, with all Republicans voting against.” “Students with disabilities who attend a private school with a voucher awarded through the program lose some of the civil rights protections they are granted under IDEA. For example, IDEA requires that traditional public schools have an individualized education program that spells out needed support and accommodations for students with disabilities, but private schools aren’t required to offer one. That’s common with state-funded voucher and tax-credit programs, including tax-credit programs in Florida championed by DeVos.”

Marc Egan, who leads government relations for the National Education Association, is quoted by the Washington Post analyzing D.C. private schools that accept tuition vouchers: “They may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.”

While Washington, D.C. does not have a voting member of Congress, the nation’s capital is represented by non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose testimony on the SOAR Act is quoted by the Washington Post.  Norton is not at all impressed with the D.C. Voucher Program she has been observing since 2004, and she opposes its renewal: “The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: It has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests…. The program is therefore patently unnecessary.”

Betsy DeVos: Religion, Money, and School Choice

When we think about public schools and religion, there are some clear boundaries, and it is important to recognize them and understand how various churches and Christian denominations understand them, because there are distinctions. These issues are relevant today because some people who are part of Donald Trump’s administration want to bend the boundaries.

Protecting freedom of religion, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first clause (the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s endorsing any one religion as the religion of our society, and the second clause (the Free Exercise Clause) guarantees citizens of the United States the right to practice whatever religion they choose or not to practice a religion. Our Constitution protects religious diversity, which has historically been understood to mean that public schools, defined by their acceptance of public tax dollars, may not force children to practice any particular religion.

It is also essential to understand these issues with some nuance.  Betsy DeVos was brought up in what is known as one of the Reformed denominations, and she is known to want to bend the boundaries on protection of religious freedom, but this does not mean that all members of Reformed Protestant denominations share her views about bending the First Amendment rules in publicly funded schools.  The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, for example, are well known Reformed communions that strenuously defend the separation of church and state in public schools.

Neither should it be assumed that all charitable partnerships of churches with public schools cross the boundary and abuse the principle of religious liberty.  It is perfectly appropriate for churches to donate backpacks filled with school supplies, tutor children in public schools, help set up and staff after-school programs, and set up and help staff computer labs near schools that lack such facilities as long as the work is charitable and lacks the goal and practice of evangelism.  Many such programs across the country assist children and teachers, and their sponsors adhere to principles declared by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant communities of faith.

In a very important article in Rolling Stone, Betsy DeVos’ Holy War, Janet Reitman, the reporter, has provided a very important profile of Betsy DeVos and her circle of Christian extremists. But in some subtle ways, Reitman makes assumptions about Reformed church denominations and assumptions about church partnerships with public schools that call into question the commitment of those involved with public school support programs. All members of Reformed churches are not extremists, just as not all volunteers and sponsors of school-congregational partnerships are involved in proselytizing.

But, as Reitman accurately portrays her, Betsy DeVos is an extremist and her support for the expansion of vouchers and tuition tax credits crosses the boundary drawn by the U.S. Constitution to protect religious freedom.  Reitman’s Rolling Stone article is important because it explains the activities and philanthropic contributions of Dick and Betsy DeVos to promote their particular religious agenda.  They seek to make our society conform to their own religious beliefs.

Reitman describes, for example, the support of Michigan’s DeVos family and Betsy DeVos’s parents and their family, the Princes, of a secretive organization, the Council for National Policy, a “little-known group of several hundred of the country’s most powerful religious and social conservatives.”  The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind apocalyptic series of books. Reitman lists other members whose names have leaked out: “Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt; financier Foster Friess; religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins; right wing operatives like Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation;  the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms.  More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.  Rich DeVos, who described the group as a nexus of ‘the doers and the donors,’ served two stints as CNP’s president.”

What is the significance of this alliance of ideological conservatives and extremist Christian religious leaders? “What became clear as the 2000s progressed was just how much these two agendas had fused. Under the direction of Charles and David Koch, and with increasing influence from the likes of the DeVos family, the Republican big tent shifted, from the Grand Old Party to what one longtime strategist who’s spent years mapping these networks refers to as the ‘Grand New Alliance’ of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism… This new perspective, sometimes called the ‘biblical worldview,’ was being sold at special ‘pastor policy briefings’ across the country… At one I attended in Orlando, in 2012, David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and a leading Christian nationalist, patiently explained to a room of Florida pastors, why a radically reduced federal government was part of God’s plan. Jesus, for example, was opposed to the capital-gains tax, Barton said, citing passages in the books of Romans and Matthew.”

School privatization through vouchers (or tuition tax credits which are a variation on vouchers) is definitely central to this plan.  Why?  Here is how Patrick O’Donnell begins his story on Ohio vouchers in this past Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “Almost all of the money from Ohio’s main tuition voucher programs—97 percent of it—flows to private religious schools, a Plain Dealer examination of records from the 2015-16 school year shows. Christian schools, as expected, receive the bulk—more than $140 million in state tax dollars a year.  Catholic and Christian schools in Cleveland are the biggest winners, thanks to a Cleveland-only voucher program that was the first in the state when started in 1996. The top three private schools to benefit—Cleveland Central Catholic, St. Joseph Academy and Metro Catholic—are schools in Cleveland, as are seven of the top 10 in the state.”

On December 20, 1999, Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, found the Cleveland Voucher Program unconstitutional because it violated the Constitutional protection of religious liberty.  Page after page of Judge Oliver’s decision quotes participating schools’ mission statements.  One school explained, “An integral part of the school program is instruction in religious truths and values. These values permeate the whole atmosphere of the school.”  Judge Oliver’s decision declared: “The court concludes that the Voucher Program violates the Establishment Clause… because it results in prohibited governmental indoctrination and because it defines its recipients by reference to religion.”

In 2002, however, in a split 5-4 decision, the Rehnquist Supreme Court declared the program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because the state of Ohio grants the vouchers to the parents, not directly to religious schools, and the parents then choose where to educate their children.  The state of Ohio, said the Supreme Court, is offering school choice to parents, not spending money directly on religious education.

Reitman describes many of the organizations funded by Dick and Betsy DeVos that have re-framed vouchers as “school choice”  without any connection to the boundary between church and state—thereby changing many people’s understanding of the Constitution—and that helped drive the political shift that changed the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The DeVos and Prince families have donated millions of dollars to the Council for National Policy, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, All Children Matter, the Great Lakes Education Project, and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  Another recipient of DeVos money has been the Institute for Justice, whose attorneys have brought and litigated pro-voucher lawsuits across the states.

Reitman’s Rolling Stone article explores what she calls the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology that she believes Betsy DeVos epitomizes: “No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products.  Amway—short for ‘American Way’—now has annual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s ‘Founders’ Fundamentals’: faith, freedom, hope and reward,” a “merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”

School Privatization Means Loss of Public Investment to Profits and Sacrifice of Students’ Rights

Here is how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson begin their newest book, American Amnesia, that explores the subject of America’s capitulation to the belief that government is the problem, not the solution to our society’s concerns: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because American’s cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends… Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Exactly how our turning away from government has affected public schools is the subject of a fascinating analysis by Alex Molnar, Dismantling Public Education: Turning Ideology into Gold.  Molnar—a Research Professor and Publications Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—painstakingly traces the history of the development of public education as “an egalitarian institution that was redistributive in its effects… Public education in the United States has from its earliest days been structured to embody and strengthen representative democracy by inculcating democratic values….”  But, “The major education reforms of the past 35 years—education vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all seek to remove public schools from the control of elected bodies, to subject them to the ‘laws’ of the ‘market’; and to put them at the service of the economic elite.  The world being called into existence is based on the belief that anyone, but not everyone, can succeed—a world of winners and losers, each of whom has earned his or her fate.” It is also a world where “the progressive edifice that Roosevelt… constructed (in the New Deal) would have to be set aside, taxes on wealth and profits reduced, wages suppressed, and a greater share of government costs shifted to the working class.”

Molnar marks the beginning of our times with the economics of Ronald Reagan, which “replaced the citizen’s democratic right to a ‘voice’ in shaping their public schools with a consumer’s choice to ‘exit’ schools. Under the banner of ‘school choice,’ public education would thus be removed from democratic control and reformulated as a commodity to be ‘chosen.'” Our society has been wooed away from supporting public schools. “Under pressure from and with the aid of charitable foundations, wealthy philanthropists, and ideologues, government policy makers have steadily shifted control of the schools from locally elected school boards to appointed governing bodies. A for-profit school sector has emerged that depends entirely on taxpayer and philanthropic funds. Accountability has been shifted from government regulatory oversight mechanisms to ‘market discipline.’… Getting this myth ‘believed’ meant new opportunities to turn tax dollars into profits—profits from, for example, paying a few teachers more and many teachers less; profits from designing standardized tests; profits from renting school facilities; profits from managing schools; profits from data management systems and test scoring systems; and profits from selling software platforms and computing devices. Best of all, these profitmaking opportunities came with little or no government oversight to thwart self-dealing and ferret out fraud and abuse.  Oversight and regulation had by this time been successfully characterized as innovation and achievement killers.”

In his analysis Molnar highlights two prominent abuses that have emerged with the wave of school privatization—the removal of what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government”—regulation and oversight which are said by the privatizers to kill innovation, and the distortions that result when government funding flows to private profits. Conveniently, two exposes in the press this week—mere examples of the cascade of stories we are reading about abuses in charter schools and other privatized education ventures—exemplify the very problems Molnar highlights.

The first, These For-Profit Schools are ‘Like a Prison’, comes from Pro Publica and was jointly published at Slate.  It is an expose of staff abusing students in private, for-profit alternative schools run by Camelot Education. Camelot “contracts with traditional school  districts to run about 40 schools across the country—schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically.  In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago.  The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.” Pro Publica‘s story covers problems in York and Reading’s Camelot schools in some depth. “Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school-district officials to… (transfer their students to) Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet.” “Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school, instead counting only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools.” “Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly people of color.”  Pro Publica‘s report describes Camelot schools as resembling “the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed above all else, to maintain obedience and control.”

Because Camelot schools are privately operated, even courts investigating complaints of physical abuse of students have struggled to acquire evidence or get staff to testify after their schools threatened staff with job loss. Some parents describe being pressured to sign away their children’s due process rights at the schools.  The Pro Publica reporters describe a lawsuit brought against a Pensacola, Florida Camelot alternative school: “Pensacola’s school district stayed out of the Tillery cases. It let Camelot investigate and address them, said Vickie Mathis, the director of alternative education for the district. ‘They are Camelot employees,’ she said. ‘We expected Camelot to do the investigation and come to a finding and take action if there was a finding of wrongdoing.'”  The reporters do cite two school districts—Reading, Pennsylvania, and New Orleans—where, to protect students’ rights, public “school officials cut ties with Camelot as abuse allegations emerged.”

Then there is Ohio, where enormous profits from the online academies are being used to block the very regulations that would protect the state’s investment in its public schools. The legislature needs to increase oversight to prevent massive over-payments by the state for students the e-schools claim are enrolled, but who do not participate actively in online education.  Over-payments for phantom students in Ohio’s electronic schools have been regularly reported in the state’s newspapers, but this week the story made headlines in Education Week: Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute: “The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year, but state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total… Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school’s learning software….  Historically, the Ohio education department determined student attendance, and thus enrollment, based on paperwork submitted by e-school representatives, who certified that students were enrolled and had been offered the 920 hours of learning required by state law.”

Now when regulators from the Ohio Department of Education are cracking down to insist that the state pay only for students who are actively participating and that e-schools do more than merely offer the curriculum, the e-schools are pushing back. ECOT has taken the state to court to block the enforcement of stricter regulations, and William Lager, who reaps the profits from both of his privately owned companies that manage ECOT, has hired the state’s most prominent lobbyists as well as keeping up the contributions to legislators’ political campaigns. The Ohio House and Senate, not surprisingly, continue to refuse to pass strict and explicit regulations. (This blog has covered the ECOT phantom student scandal here.)

Together these articles explore and expose what has been happening through school privatization and school reformers’ efforts to undermine the coercive power of government.  Only government—the law and its democratic enforcement—can protect students’ civil rights and our public investment in education.