What’s Happening with Adoption of Final Rules to Improve Regulation of the Federal Charter Schools Program?

Many of us submitted formal testimony to the U.S. Department of Education in late March, when the Department requested comments on proposed new rules to improve oversight of grants made by the federal Charter Schools Program. I have been, and I assume you may have been, wondering about what will be the final rules the Department adopts and the timeline for adoption of the final rules.

This blog will take a week’s summer vacation. Look for a new post on Tuesday, June 28th.

Libby Stanford recently addressed these questions for Education Week by speaking with Jessica Cardichon, a deputy assistant secretary for policy development.  Also, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum interviewed Roberto Rodriguez, Assistant Education Secretary.

The Timeline for Adoption of Final Rules

We shouldn’t hold our collective breaths. Cardichon and Rodriguez report that the department received over 25,000 comments, which staff are considering.  Barnum quotes Rodriguez: “We are certainly continuing to wade through the many comments that came in… We know we need to finalize something, if it’s going to be applicable for this year’s funding, this summer. That is certainly a goal that we would like to meet… We’re assessing that in real time now, honestly, to determine what’s possible this summer.”

What Are Likely to Be the Department’s Priorities?

First:     Perhaps surprisingly, because it was not explicitly named in the new rules, one priority seems to be reducing the high closure rate for charter schools that have recently received a Charter Schools Program grant. Clearly Department staff are responding to the 2019 report from the Network for Public Education, Asleep at the Wheel, which exposed the outrageous closure rate of charter schools that had received Charter Schools Program funds. Perhaps we should recognize that this concern might have been part of the reason why the Department of Education proposed the rule demanding that each charter school startup application would include a community impact statement.

Education Week‘s Stanford details the problem from Cardichon’s point of view: “Charter school closure rates are a top administration concern.  From 2006 through 2017, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education provided grants to 3,128 schools through the program. But 15 percent of the charter schools that receive funding through the federal program either never open or close before the three-year grant is complete, said Jessica Cardichon.”

Matt Barnum quotes Assistant Secretary Roberto Rodriguez: “(W)e did want to get involved in some of those quality issues. This is in part trying to be responsive to the fact that we know 15% of grantees, as we looked back across the program, either never opened or were closed by the end of the grant period. That’s 930 schools that received over $174 million in federal funding. It’s important to make sure that the stewardship of the program—particularly with respect to accountability and fiscal responsibility—is there.”

Second:     A Departmental priority seems to be ceasing to make grants to small nonprofit charter schools that are fully managed under what are called “sweeps contracts” by for-profit Charter Management Organizations.  Roberto Rodriguez tells Chalkbeat: “There is (an)… objective around addressing for-profit entities that operate charter schools—not entities that might partner with charter schools for services, but entities that might be for-profit operators. Which is something the administration would like to address in this rule—to make sure we are not, from a federal level, supporting dollars that are going to for-profit entities operating charters.”

Education Week‘s Stanford explains: “Schools that plan to contract with for-profit organizations have to describe all of the details of that contract, including the amount of federal funds that would be used to pay for services under the contract, information on the governing board members of the organization, and any conflicts of interest.”

Third:     It would appear that Department staff are listening a bit more to pushback coming from Nina Rees, the president and C.E.O. of the  National Alliance for Public Charter Schools against the Department’s proposed rule to demand a community impact statement in a charter school startup’s grant request. Education Week‘s Stanford explains: “Charter advocates are concerned that the proposed rules will discourage incoming charter schools from pursuing grants, preventing schools that don’t already have substantial outside funding from coming to fruition. Fifty percent of all charter schools rely on the program for their initial funding, Rees said. ‘If the funds are this complicated to access it will dampen the sector’s interest in opening more schools.'”

But Stanford quotes Jessica Cardichon pushing back: “The Education Department has since clarified that overenrollment is one of a number of factors that could demonstrate need. Applicants can include other factors that show a need for the school, such as evidence of demand for specialized instructional approaches. ‘Traditional public schools do the same thing before they build a new school, getting a sense of will they have sufficient students to maintain a certain level of enrollment… The idea that we’re doing something different, we think is a misconception.”

Rodriguez tells Matt Barnum: “The goal here was to try to do more to solicit a needs analysis, just as we do with many other programs across the department that address K-12 education…. One of the currents that we’ve seen in this comment is the worry about burden—the amount of time and effort that it would take to meet some of those requirements.  That’s something we’re looking at and paying close attention to and will really be considering carefully before we finalize any rule… The objective is to have some reflection of community input.”

Summary:     It looks as though it is a possibility that rules will be finalized by summer’s end and that the Department will hold firm on banning grants that would flow to Charter Management Organizations. There may be some easing of specific demands for a startup’s impact analysis and demonstrated collaboration with traditional neighborhood schools. Finally it appears that the Department wants to stop the flow of federal dollars to schools that are so poorly conceptualized that they will never open or will close soon after opening.

Just this week, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris published evidence of the need for stricter oversight of funds when charter school startups are delayed or schools fail to open: “Charter Schools Program grants to the states have a timeline of five years.”  In New York, eight charter schools in New York have filed a lawsuit claiming, “that in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education unfairly pulled promised funds from the schools when it called back unspent funding from a 2011 Charter Schools Program grant.”

Burris responds: “Despite the claim, the 2019 clawback of funds was not only justified but also long overdue… In 2011, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) was given more than $13 million from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)  to disperse as subgrants to charter schools as start-up or expansion funds. At the same time, New York’s big charter chains like Success Academy, Kipp, and Democracy Prep were also getting federal dollars from the Charter Schools Program Charter Management Organization grants. There was so much CSP funding with limited demand that NYSED could not give it all away… (B)y 2016, NYSED should not have continued to make sub-grants. But apparently, it did not stop awarding grants and return the excess funds. It continued to give the federal dollars out.”

This sort of situation is precisely the reason for Assistant Education Secretary Roberto Rodriguez’s statement to Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum: “It’s important to make sure that the stewardship of the program—particularly with respect to accountability and fiscal responsibility—is there.”

Burris’s New York story is the very reason why the new rules proposed by the U.S. Department to tighten up its own program are so urgently needed.

Bloomberg Belittles Public Schools as a Strategy for Expanding School Privatization

On June 3, in an opinion column which appeared in the Washington Post and newspapers across the country, Michael Bloomberg extols privately operated charter schools and scathingly criticizes public education. Bloomberg cherry picks the research he cites and blames “failing” public schools for a massive enrollment collapse during the pandemic when, of course, we don’t yet know how the disruption of COVID-19 will ultimately affect either public school or charter school enrollment.  It would appear that the story of massive charter school growth is coming from the charter school sector’s primary lobby, the National Alliance for Public Charter schools, an organization with an obvious bias.

Bloomberg’s preference for charter schools is not new. In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch described what happened in New York City when Bloomberg, as mayor, appointed Joel Klein, an attorney who had served as the chief prosecutor in a government antitrust case against Microsoft, as New York City’s schools chancellor: “Previous leaders of the school system had opposed charter schools, believing that they would drain away students and money from the regular public schools. The city had only a few of them when Klein took office. He energetically authorized new charter schools, and within a few years the DOE reached the state-legislated cap of fifty charter schools. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg persuaded the legislature and newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer to permit New York City to open an additional fifty charter schools. During his reelection campaign in 2009, he promised to open another one hundred new charter schools, so that by 2013, 100,000 students would be in charters.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 80)

Mike Bloomberg’s support for charter schools has never flagged.  Just two months ago, on April 25, 2022, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced $200 million in grants to charter schools in New York City: “Bloomberg Philanthropies today announced $100 million in support to Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy and $100 million in support to Success Academy, two leading public charter schools in New York City.”

In his recent column, Bloomberg endorses the idea that states and the federal government should expand privately operated charter schools with greater public investment: “Charter schools educate 7% of all public school students, yet they receive less than 1% of total federal spending on K-12 education. As more parents opt out of traditional district schools, that imbalance should be corrected, as charters struggle to afford the teachers they need to serve their growing student populations often in low-income neighborhoods.” Bloomberg neglects the evidence in research like the 2018, Breaking Point study by Gordon Lafer, which showed that the Oakland Unified School District in California loses $57.3 million each year in unrecoverable operating expenses to charter schools located within the district’s boundaries.

Mike Bloomberg further argues that research shows that students in charter schools do much better academically than their public school counterparts.  Not only is there a mass of research showing that charter schools serve fewer disabled students and English language learners, but overall research on student achievement in charter schools shows there is a vast diversity of outcomes across the schools in the charter sector. The Network for Public Education has published a short brief showing that, on the whole, charter schools do no better at serving their students than traditional public schools.

Bloomberg’s support for school privatization has been echoed loudly across the states in recent months. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, PhD, teaches in the College of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. In an important recent column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Siegel-Hawley condemns a new report on the condition of Virginia’s public education, a report demanded by Glenn Youngkin, that state’s new governor in his very first executive order: “The Youngkin administration’s 90-day Virginia Department of Education report, required as part of the governor’s first executive order banning ‘divisive concepts’ in schools, outlines recent testing trends for our students and a blueprint for moving forward. In substance and purpose, the 90-day report harkens back to a damaging 1983 Reagan administration document. A Nation at Risk sounded alarm over the state of the country’s public school system. Presenting test scores without important context like the rapid expansion of educational access for historically un- or underserved groups, the report warned of a ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in our schools… We… could more closely examine the context for and claims made by A Nation at Risk and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 90-day report.  Each was written at the request of leaders committed to privatizing public schools, and each distorted real test trends with inappropriate data comparisons and ahistorical conclusions. What if the goal was not how to best assess public school performance but how to best erode confience in public schools?”

This year during Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia and more broadly in school districts across the country, we have watched a wave of parents mobbing school board meetings with demands that they be allowed to control what their children learn about American history and a list of divisive subjects.  Posted on the website of the Schott Foundation for Public Education is a short video, What’s Behind the Critical Race Theory Panic?, explicitly examining who is behind this year’s parent uprisings. The film exposes the involvement of far right organizations like the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes in resourcing these supposedly spontaneous uprisings with the specific purpose of winning support for a wave of laws in state legislatures to expand school privatization in the form of more tuition vouchers for private schools along with more public investment in privately operated charter schools.

In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen explores the meaning of “the public” and why citizens ought to be prepared to defend against attacks on the public from Mike Bloomberg and all the far-right groups mounting culture war attacks to undermine public education:

“In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around (and we should note, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be private schools or bottled water or privately produced COVID testing kits).  Public control is exercised in different ways, the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods created privately. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)

How Clinton Democrats Joined Philanthrocapitalists to Create Corporate School Reform

I remember my gratitude when, back in 2010, I sat down to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which connected the dots across what I had been watching for nearly a decade: the standards movement, annual standardized testing, the operation of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish, Mayor Bloomberg’s promotion of charter schools in New York City, and the role of venture philanthropy in all this.

Now over a decade later, many of us have spent the past couple of months worried about pushback from the charter school sector as the the U.S. Department of Education has proposed strengthening sensible regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. We have been reminded that this program was launched in 1994, and we may have been puzzled that a federal program paying for the startup of privately operated charter schools originated during a Democratic administration.

Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College, has just published a wonderful book which explains how the New Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council—brought a political and economic philosophy that sought to end welfare with a 1996 bill called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and envisioned privately operated charter schools to expand competition and innovation in the public schools as a way to close school achievement gaps. Geismer’s book is Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. The book is a great read, and it fills in the public policy landscape of the 1990s, a decade we may never have fully understood.

In the introduction, Geismer explains where she is headed: “Since the New Deal, liberals had advocated for doing well and doing good. However, the form of political economy enacted during the new Deal and, later, the New Frontier and Great Society understood these as distinct goals. The architects of mid-twentieth century liberalism believed that stimulating capital markets was the best path to creating economic growth and security (doing well). The job of the federal government, as they saw it, was to fill in the holes left by capitalism with compensatory programs to help the poor, like cash assistance and Head Start, and to enact laws that ended racial and gender discrimination (doing good). In contrast, the New Democrats sought to merge those functions and thus do well by doing good. This vision contended that the forces of banking, entrepreneurialism, trade, and technology… could substitute for traditional forms of welfare and aid and better address structural problems of racial and economic segregation. In this vision, government did not recede but served as a bridge connecting the public and private sectors.” (p. 8)

Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s new education policy.  She begins by telling us about Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea…  The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (pp. 233-234)

Quoting John Doerr, who founded the NewSchool Venture Fund in 1997, Geismer gives us a taste of the kind of rhetoric we heard so often from the corporate school reformers: “‘The New Economy isn’t just about high-tech products,’ Doerr liked to say. ‘It’s about the politics of education, constant innovation and unlimited growth’ and a nonhierarchical meritocracy where ‘the best ideas win.'” (p. 238)

We learn about Al From, who founded and led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and From’s commitment to charter schools: “Privately, From stressed to the president that charter schools, along with welfare reform, were the most important ways to show his willingness to challenge ‘the old liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy’ and special interest groups like organized labor. Charters could appeal to the white moderate suburbanites whom the DLC believed to be critical to Clinton’s (1996) reelection effort.”  And Clinton bought the new strategy: “The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on that theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.'” (p. 244)

When, in 1997, Clinton held an event to celebrate charter schools at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center in California, the school’s founder, Don Shalvey, met another entrepreneur, a guy who had already sold a software company for $750 million, Reed Hastings, who later founded Netflix.  The two raised millions of dollars to sponsor a ballot issue that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Eventually, without ever mounting the ballot referendum, they reached a compromise with California’s legislature to pass a bill to “increase the number of charters in the state from 250 immediately and add an additional 100 each year after that.” (p. 251)

Beyond Shalvey and Hastings’ efforts in California there were various strategies to grow the scale of the charter movement. In 1994, Clinton’s Department of Education launched the Charter Schools Program, “which provided new seed capital for opening charter schools.” (p. 243)  And there was the ongoing work of the NewSchools Venture Fund: “The NewSchools board and staff especially concentrated on ways to accelerate the scale and impact of the charter school model… NewSchools developed a model of creating a charter network called a charter management organization (CMO), which would be nonprofit but draw on market-based ideas and practices. NewSchools worked closely on this idea with Hastings and Don Shalvey… Shalvey did most of the legwork in developing University Public Schools (it would later change to Aspire), which he envisioned as a ‘scalable model’ that would bring ‘the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.’ The name derived from its goal that all the low-income students who enrolled would go on to college or at least ‘aspire’ to do so… NewSchools provided the initial funding but tied the money to student performance and achievement.” (p. 256)

As the movement grew, so did problems for the public school districts where the charter chains located: “For most of the 1990s, charters represented a small portion of the total schools in most urban districts. The growth of CMOs and the new philanthropic investment changed that in the next decade as NewSchools helped to launch or expand twenty CMOs… For the first time, public schools in struggling urban neighborhoods found charter schools making a significant dent in their enrollments and funding. With the perpetual scarcity of funding and resources allocated for public education, it would have particularly deleterious consequences for many urban schools.” (p. 259)

Geismer summarizes the impact of the educational experiment Clinton launched: “Whether successful or not, charters remain effective symbols of the control that wealthy private forces have come to wield over public policy and the ways that the ethos of the New Democrats had a direct impact on the public sector. The Gates Foundation and the tech entrepreneurs of the NewSchools Venture Fund did not just get a seat at the decision-making table but wielded the financial power to control educational policy at the local, state, and federal level.” (p. 260)

More broadly Geismer examines the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (pp. 9-10)

I definitely encourage you to read Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

In Ohio, Federal Court Preserves Gerrymandering; Legislature Arms Teachers; House Bans Transgender Girls from Sports; Legislature Expands Privatization of Public Education

In its legislative update last Friday, Honesty for Ohio Education reported: “It was an appalling and heartbreaking week in the Statehouse as Ohio legislators passed two bills to arm school personnel and ban transgender girls in female sports, and held hearings for bills censoring education about race, sexuality, and gender and banning gender-affirming healthcare for minors.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explains how, without a hearing, the House banned transgender girls from female sports when legislators added the amendment to another bill: “The Ohio House passed a bill shortly before midnight Wednesday, the first day of Pride Month, with an amendment to ban transgender girls and women from playing high school and college women’s sports… As originally introduced, HB 151 would change the Ohio Resident Educator Program, which assists new teachers with mentoring and professional development as they begin their careers… But on the Ohio House floor late Wednesday night, Rep. Jena Powell, a Darke County Republican, offered an amendment to the bill, which a majority of the house accepted…. House Bill 151 passed 56 to 28 with Democrats voting in opposition. It now heads to the Ohio Senate, which is in summer recess and won’t return until the fall.”

A big part of our problem in Ohio is a long run of gerrymandering—leaving both chambers of our state legislature with huge Republican supermajorities.  A committee of legislators from House and Senate were charged to create fair and balanced legislative district maps. The Ohio Redistricting Commission spent the winter and spring redrawing the maps, which were rejected five times by the Ohio Supreme Court because a Court majority found the new maps gerrymandered to favor the election of Republicans. At the end of May, however, a federal district court ruled that the state must end the battle over gerrymandering by using maps—for this year’s August primary and the November general election—which were rejected twice in the spring by the state’s supreme court because they favor Republican candidates.

Citizens in a democracy are not supposed to be utterly powerless, but that is how it feels right now in Ohio.

In the Ohio legislature, the bill that shut transgender girls out of school sports is not the only piece of legislation into which our legislators added provisions that will hurt public schools.  Last week, the Ohio House concurred with a Senate version of House Bill 583, a bill filled with lots of miscellaneous education provisions. But in its version, passed in late May, the Senate had also embedded several amendments to expand vouchers and charter schools and thereby reduce state funds for public schools.

If you look at the Ohio Legislative Service Commission’s bill analysis of HB 583, you will see that the House Bill’s original focus was to address the shortage of substitute teachers, which has been acute during and following school disruption of COVID-19. Later in the extensive list of subjects are the establishment of a tutoring and remedial education program, adjustments to dyslexia screening, licensure procedures for licensed practical nurses, and alternative resident educator licensure.

But the bottom half of the first page, all of the second page, and half of the third page of the summary are about state scholarship and educational savings programs and community schools. The language the legislature is using here is idiosyncratic to Ohio and not at all transparent to anyone outside our state.

  • Scholarship and educational savings programs are—in Ohio speak—the allocation of tax dollars for private school tuition vouchers and the allocation of tax dollars for education savings account vouchers to pay for (in this bill) after school programs.
  • Community Schools—in Ohio speak—are privately operated charter schools paid for with state tax dollars.

If Governor Mike DeWine signs Ohio House Bill 583, one important change will be to expand eligibility for Ohio’s EdChoice Expansion vouchers, which are income-based. Currently to qualify for a first-time EdChoice Expansion private school tuition voucher, a student must live in a household with income at or below 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL). The Legislative Service Commission explains what will happen under the new law: “Under current law, the amount of that scholarship in subsequent school years is subject to progressive proration if the family income rises above 250% FPL. If a recipient’s family income rises above 400% FPL, the recipient loses eligibility to renew that scholarship. The new bill eliminates the progressive proration of a scholarship amount and the disqualification of a recipient to renew a scholarship based on rising family income.”  It appears that even if a student’s family’s income rises above 400% of the federal poverty level, the student would remain eligible to renew the voucher to subsidize private school tuition.

According to the Legislative Service Commission analysis, House Bill 583 will also make a private school outside the geographic Cleveland boundary eligible to accept students carrying a voucher from the Cleveland Scholarship Program. Remember that in Ohio speak, a scholarship is a private school tuition voucher.

The Legislative Service Commission Analysis also describes House Bill 583’s expansion of charter schools and changes in regulations affecting charter school sponsors. The bill approves funding for a new “remote learning community school.” To translate from Ohio speak: that sentence means that the state will fund a new online charter school.

Finally there are several provisions to reduce oversight of Ohio’s notoriously large number of charter school sponsors—many known to be weak and many far away geographically from the schools they sponsor. One provision of House Bill 583 will establish “a safe harbor from penalties and sanction for community (charter)  school sponsors based on sponsor ratings issued for the 2021-2022 school year.” And House Bill 583 will permit “a low-performing community (charter) school, for the 2022-2023 school year only, to enter into a contract with a new sponsor without the Department’s approval.” The practice of sponsor hopping is well known in Ohio when a sponsor threatens to shut down an academically under-performing charter school.

Right now in Ohio, legislators are considering culture war bills not only on transgender rights and arming teachers, but also bills banning discussion of racial justice, proposals to ban books, and a “don’t say gay” bill. But the very operation of the state’s public schools is also at stake when legislators demonstrate their commitment to expanding publicly funded school privatization at the expense of the public schools by surreptitiously inserting school privatization measures into a bill originally designed to help ease the shortage of public school substitute teachers following the pandemic.

Governor DeWine should definitely not sign HB 583 and thereby further undermine Ohio’s capacity to fund our state’s 610 public school districts which serve 1.8 million students.

In a new report, Public Schooling in America: Measuring Each State’s Commitment to Democratically Governed Schools, the Network for Public Education grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on their commitment to privatized marketplace school choice at the expense of their public school districts: “Not only do we grade the states based on their willingness to commit exclusively or primarily to democratically governed public schools open to all, but their willingness to put sufficient guardrails and limits on publicly-funded alternatives to ensure that taxpayers, students, and families are protected from discrimination, corruption and fraud in the programs they have.”

The Network for Public Education ranks Ohio third from the bottom in its support for the state’s public schools—ahead of only Florida and Arizona.

Implications of U.S. Supreme Court’s Upcoming Decision in Maine, Church-State, School Voucher Case

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss recently published a warning about possible unforeseen consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-released decision in a Maine school voucher case, Carson v. Makin. The Court is expected to release its decision by the end of June.

This is a First Amendment case about the entanglement of religion with government and government funding. Strauss warns: “In Carson v. Makin, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court is likely to require Maine officials to use public funding to subsidize religious teaching and proselytizing at schools that legally discriminate against people who don’t support their religious beliefs.”

Strauss refers readers to a May 12 policy brief, The Outsourcing of Discrimination: Another SCOTUS Earthquake?, by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. Welner explains why the Carson v. Makin, church-state case seems so complicated and confusing: “The First Amendment prohibits laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ These two religion clauses have long existed in tension and in a balance. The Free Exercise Clause protects individuals’ right to practice their religion as they please, while the Establishment Clause keeps the government from (at least in some circumstances) favoring or disfavoring religion or religious institutions. But that balance has perished. A well-orchestrated push to lift the Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause above its Establishment Clause has seen a level of success enjoyed by few other legal-advocacy efforts.”

The issue in Carson v. Makin differs from a 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the state could not discriminate against a school based on its religious statusCarson v. Makin is about the school’s practice—the explicit teaching of religion, which the state of Maine currently prohibits.

Welner traces the history of church-state school voucher cases: “The legal landscape for vouchers supporting private religious schools has changed 180 degrees, corresponding to the shift in the makeup of justices on the Supreme Court. Vouchers for religious schools have moved from being broadly understood to be constitutionally forbidden in (the) 1970s to constitutionally allowed in 2003, via the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) decision, to now arguably constitutionally required, at least under the Montana circumstances.”  Here Welner is referring to the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.”

Many have believed that the recent “Free Exercise” decisions—the 2020 Espinoza decision and the decision the U.S. Supreme Court will release this month in Carson v. Makin—will have little real impact on state policy.  The 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—based on the old Establishment Clause definition of the separation of church and state—declared that as long as states awarded the voucher to the parents and not directly to the religious school and as long as the parents made the decision to use the voucher at the religious school, vouchers did not violate the separation of church and state.  Following Zelman, most states which award vouchers have already been allowing them to flow to religious schools.

In his new brief, however, Kevin Welner worries that Carson v. Makin could potentially have serious implications when religious schools violate students’ rights protected in federal law. Welner also explores, with a focus on charter schools, how the policy implications would be different in politically blue and red states.

Welner wonders about unexpected implications for all sorts of services which states operate by hiring private contractors—including charter schools: “In a nutshell, the majority of Supreme Court justices may adopt a rule requiring that whenever a state decides to provide a service through a non-state employee (e.g. through a contracting mechanism), the state will face the highest level of judicial scrutiny if it discriminates against churches and church-affiliated service providers that infuse their beliefs into the provided services. Moreover, the Court may determine—in Carson or a subsequent case—that it will apply that same heightened scrutiny to any state intervention if those beliefs drive those providers to engage in discrimination against people because of, for example, their gender identity or sexual orientation (as we see with the private religious schools at issue in the Carson litigation). For states that are politically inclined to engage in such discrimination themselves, this outsourcing of discrimination may be an attractive approach. But states that abhor such discrimination may find themselves forced to pull back on private contracting to provide public services, ending policies that allow private operators of everything from social services like foster care to health care, to prisons and, as I explain… charter schools.”

“If the Supreme Court shifts free exercise jurisprudence in the above-described direction, we can expect that religious nonprofits will apply to establish charter schools… These applications will likely set forth a curriculum consistent with their religious beliefs, including—in many cases—religious worship and proselytization. Some of these applications (or the charter schools’ stated rules) will include curriculum, policies and practices that discriminate against students based on their, or their family’s, gender identity or sexual orientation. If the state refuses these charter applications because of the discrimination, we will see lawsuits from the applicants. If the state grants the applications, we may see lawsuits from the aggrieved students… In contrast to these possible blue-state responses, many red-state policymakers can be expected to embrace the prospect of churches having equal access to government contracts and interjecting religious teachings while carrying out contracted work. Further, the new legal regime could, in these red states, become a red carpet for those with a motivation to discriminate. This discrimination may go beyond hiring or student admission; in some cases bigotry would be part of the curriculum and counseling programs. And it may target, for instance, disfavored religious groups in addition to LGBTQ+ community members.”

Welner concludes the brief: “The Supreme Court’s now-dominant majority of justices with very conservative politics seems to have abandoned the relatively incrementalist (but still very conservative) agenda of Chief Justice Roberts… Religious believers’ claims of discrimination now have a preferred place in the federal courts. Other discrimination claims, particularly those on behalf of members of the LGBTQ+ community, are shown a back seat along with claims raising concerns about the establishment of religion. Riding the wake of these changes, private-school voucher policies have gained legal advantages that were, just decades ago, unimaginable pipedreams. But this may create very real political problems—in blue states at least—for charter school advocates. Of course, the Supreme Court’s majority may, in Carson or in later cases, attempt to carve out exceptions for charter schools and other types of contracting for governmental services… The one sure thing is that we now have a Supreme court that is unabashedly transforming the legal rules within which other governmental entities must make their rules—and education policymakers will have to respond accordingly.”

This blog commented on Carson v. Makin on December 13, 2021, after oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Education Expert Demonstrates Why Gov. Youngkin’s Attack on Virginia’s Public Schools Is Wrong

I suspect that Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, knows very little, really, about public education.  He was an investment banker before he became a politician, and his children attend the elite, private Georgetown Prep. But Youngkin knows how to build political capital by frightening parents and the general public about so-called failures in the state’s public schools. He campaigned last year by promoting the racist idea that parents need more control over their kids’ schools to prevent the children’s being frightened or upset by the injustices that have scarred American history. And now, he has begun using test score data to try to paint the state’s public schools as failing.

The problem is that this time, as he tries to use the state’s scores on the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Education Progress ( NAEP), to prove there is something drastically wrong with Virginia’s public schools, he and his so-called experts who just castigated the state’s schools in a new report seem to have misread the meaning of the test scores they denigrate. Youngkin’s claim is that too few Virginia students achieve the “proficient” cut score on the NAEP.

For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson and Laura Vozzella report: “The Virginia Department of Education painted a grim picture of student achievement in the state in a report released Thursday, asserting that children are performing poorly on national assessments in reading and math and falling behind peers in other states.  The 34-page report on students’ academic performance, requested as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first executive order, says these trends are especially pronounced among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The report further critiques what it calls school districts’ lack of transparency regarding declining student performance—and it laments parents’ ‘eroding’ confidence in the state’s public schools.”  The Youngkin administration’s new report contends that Virginia has been expecting too little of its public school students—that, while Virginia’s state test, the Standards of Learning or SOL, shows the state’s students are doing well, Virginia’s NAEP scores show the states’ students are not really “proficient.”

But Youngkin’s report ignores years of discussion about what the “proficient” achievement level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress really means.  In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch who once served on the NAEP’s Governing Board, took the trouble to explain: “All definitions of education standards are subjective…  People who set standards use their own judgment to decide the passing mark on a test. None of this is science.” Ravitch explains further precisely how the NAEP Governing Board has always defined the difference between the “proficient” standard and the “basic” standard: “‘Proficient’ represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)… defines it as ‘solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.’… ‘Basic,’ as defined by NAGB, is ‘partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.'” Ravitch concludes that according to the NAEP standard: “a student who is ‘proficient’ earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+” while “the student who scores ‘basic’ is probably a B or C student.” (Reign of Error, p. 47)

Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses for high stakes school accountability devotes an entire chapter of his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, to the topic, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets.”  Koretz describes exactly how Glenn Youngkin appears to be manipulating the meaning of NAEP cut scores as an argument for blaming the schools and pressuring educators to prep students to improve test scores at any cost: “In a nutshell, the core of the approach has been simply to set an arbitrary performance target (the ‘Proficient’ standard) and declare that all schools must make all students reach it in an equally arbitrary amount of time…. (A)lmost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… This trust in performance standards, however is misplaced… (I)n fact, despite all the care that goes into creating them, these standards are anything but solid. They are arbitrary, and the ‘percent proficient’ is a very slippery number.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 119-121)

Natanson and Vozzella report that Virginia’s educators immediately pushed back against Youngkin’s new report: “The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C, Hutchings Jr., said the report inspired him to navigate to the NAEP website, where he discovered that Virginia students had consistently scored above the national average. ‘So, I’m not really understanding the whole premise of this report…. (which) was around us performing so much lower than everyone else.'”

Fortunately, last Friday, right after Youngkin’s report was released, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a column by James Harvey, the recently retired executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.  Harvey scathingly criticizes the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) for its confusing definition of “proficient.”  Like a lot of federal policy after Reagan’s 1983, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for widespread mediocrity and and became the basis for standards-based school reform, the NAGB set its proficiency targets to drive higher expectations. Harvey writes: “Proficient doesn’t mean proficient. Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as ‘aspirational.’ In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that: ‘The proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Harvey summarizes the decades-long controversy about National Assessment of Educational Progress cut scores: “What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights…  (T)he likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were ‘fundamentally flawed,’ ‘indefensible,’ and ‘of doubtful validity,’ while producing ‘results that are not believable.'”

Harvey continues: “How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the creme de la creme of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world. For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.”

In her introduction to Harvey’s piece, Valerie Strauss explains: “Youngkin isn’t the first politician to misinterpret NAEP scores and then use that bad interpretation to bash public schools.” Please do read Strauss’s introduction and James Harvey’s fine column to better understand how high stakes standardized testing has been used politically to drive a kind of school reform that manipulates big data but has little relevance to expanding educational opportunity.

Americans for Prosperity in Ohio: What is the Koch-Funded Buckeye Blueprint’s Education Plan?

We ought to suspect that someone has been investing heavily to push school privatization in Ohio. Last summer our legislature passed a budget that radically expanded state funding for private school tuition vouchers, allocated more money for charter schools, made every one of the state’s 610 school districts eligible for charter school operators to open schools, and allocated so much money for school privatization and tax cuts that legislators felt they couldn’t pass a stand alone bill that would have established the full six-year phase in of the Cupp-Patterson public school funding plan.

I cannot name all of the far-right organizations investing in the promotion of school privatization in Ohio, but one new initiative, launched in February, is Americans for Prosperity-Ohio’s Buckeye Blueprint.

The Buckeye Blueprint, describes itself in overblown hyperbole as, “a new grassroots campaign that seeks to build a bolder and better state by bringing people together to build bottom-up movements around policy priorities at the state and local levels. This will be accomplished by empowering concerned citizens to participate in the legislative process by building greater awareness of critical legislative opportunities for change…. Americans for Prosperity-Ohio is driving long-term solutions to the country’s biggest problems.”

In Advancing Educational Opportunities for Everyone, the Buckeye Blueprint campaign announces the campaign’s education agenda—beginning with a celebration of the Ohio Legislature’s expansion of publicly funded private school tuition vouchers last summer: “Governor DeWine, Speaker Cupp, and, most notably, Senate President Huffman, deserve credit for steps taken in the most recent Budget that increased educational opportunity through vouchers.”

Advancing Educational Opportunities for Everyone also plugs Ohio’s Backpack Bill, HB 290, a bill being discussed in the legislature to establish a universal Education Savings Account voucher program that would give every Ohio family public dollars to choose a school or spend the public dollars on any so-called educational activity the family prefers including home schooling. The Buckeye Blueprint website explains: “Passage of universal Education Savings Accounts… would put more parents in a better position to make the best choices for their kids.” Americans for Prosperity-Ohio wants us to follow the lead of our neighbors, Indiana and West Virginia, by expanding all kinds of vouchers: “Hoosier & Mountaineer families are feeling the benefit of bold reform in the last 12 months while Buckeye families seeking opportunity are currently under attack in our courts.”

Glowing language frames an individualistic agenda that claims its purpose is to expand educational opportunity, but the buzzwords show that Americans for Prosperity-Ohio is not a bit concerned about the needs of our state’s 1.8 million students in the public schools. Instead the Buckeye Blueprint demands that Ohio’s citizens pressure the legislature to: “Fund students, not schools,” for the purpose of unlocking “each individual’s unique potential.” The Buckeye Blueprint prescribes that, as an alternative to a system of public schools, the Ohio Legislature should offer, “credit for learning, wherever it occurs; (provide) the freedom to enroll in a variety of courses inside and outside of a child’s school; (provide) funded accounts that can be used for a variety of educational uses; (and ensure) public schools of choice.”

The Buckeye Blueprint refers parents and education advocates to another website: Yes. Every Kid, where we can find the “yes. policy framework”: “Does this policy contribute to a diversity of solutions?” “Does this policy empower families to choose what works best?” “Does this policy allow students to customize their education?” “Does this policy ensure funding is attached to the student?”

To refute this sort of slick, individualist appeal, it is helpful to remember that public education is designed to balance our society’s obligation to meet the needs of each particular student with the public responsibility for maintaining a system that secures the rights of all of our state’s students. Public schools are not only publicly funded, but they are expected to be universally available and accountable to the public by law and through the oversight of locally elected school boards.

In Consumed, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber explains precisely where campaigns like the Buckeye Blueprint go wrong in their individualist ideology and why school privatization will undermine our society and inevitably disadvantage the most vulnerable children:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

For all the specific reasons our society would be worse off with the expansion of vouchers at the expense of public schools and would be even more damaged by a universal Education Savings Account program like Ohio’s proposed HB 290 Backpack Bill, we can turn to the resources at Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Public Funds Public Schools has posted a catalogue of research, gathered into eight categories:

  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Improve Student Achievement.
  • Private School Vouchers Divert Needed Funding from Public Schools.
  • Private School Voucher Programs Lack Accountability.
  • Absence of Oversight in Private School Voucher Programs Leads to Corruption and Waste.
  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Help Students with Disabilities.
  • Private School Vouchers Don’t Protect Against Discrimination.
  • Private School Vouchers Exacerbate Segregation.
  • Universal Private School Voucher Programs Don’t Work.

Public Funds Public Schools summarizes this research into several two-page fact sheets:

Benjamin Barber precisely defines how privatization damages a society. His words perfectly describe what it will mean if states like Ohio continue to expand, at public expense, private school tuition vouchers and Education Savings Account programs like Ohio’s proposed Backpack Bill:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Charter School Lobby Agitates to Prevent the U.S. Department of Education from Improving Regulation of the Federal Charter Schools Program

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed new rules to tighten up the awarding of grants through its own Charter Schools Program. Seems like a good thing, right? So why did the Department’s proposed new rules lead to a big protest rally of charter school supporters from around the country in front of the White House last week?

The NY TimesErica Green explains the proposed rules: “The proposal would add requirements to the application process for grants from the federal Charter Schools Program, which has doled out billions of dollars over nearly 30 years to help open new charter schools or expand existing ones. It sets tighter restrictions on the schools’ relationships with for-profit entities and encourages more collaboration between charters and the districts they operate in. The most controversial part of the plan would require grant applicants to prove demand and community support for their schools, examine the effect they would have on neighboring district-run schools, and demonstrate that they would not exacerbate segregation.”

The proposed rules would not affect the state laws that establish charter schools and the rules under which charter schools operate in 45 states. The new rules would be limited to establishing that federal grants could no longer be awarded to charter schools operated by for-profit Charter Management Organizations, and that to qualify for a federal grant, a charter authorizer would have to show there is a need for the new school.  This is the sort of sensible regulation that ought to have been part of the program when it was established back in 1994.

During the Clinton administration and through the Bush and Obama administrations, charter schools were popular among neoliberal Democrats who saw publicly funded but privately operated charter schools as kind of a nice compromise with the more visceral school privatization advocates like Betsy DeVos.  Now a lot of Democrats, including the Biden administration, have become more aware of poor regulation of charter schools by states and the federal government, graft and corruption in the misuse and sometimes theft of public funds, and the reality that despite their promises, charter schools on the whole have not surpassed public schools in helping students achieve academically.

As Green reports, some of the Democrats who have always been and continue to be strong supporters of charter schools are angry: “The rally came on the heels of several high-profile denouncements of the proposed rules, including opinion pieces by Michael Bloomberg…. and Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado….  Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado joined Republicans in asking the department to revise them.”  But an increasing number of Democrats see the need for better oversight.

Green quotes Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education as a prime supporter of the new rules and Nina Rees, the president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as a leading opponent of more stringent regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program.  It is important to be very clear about what these organizations are.

Rees’ organization, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is the primary mouthpiece for the charter school sector. It has a 32 person staff and is well funded by philanthropists, charter school authorizers, and operators of charter schools. When the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sponsors a rally at the White House, the organization can afford to fly in charter school parents from around the country to speak for their schools. But the testimony of satisfied parents passionately defending their experience with particular charter schools is not the whole story.

The Network for Public Education (NPE)—a national, volunteer, good government, public school advocacy organization—has been a primary critic of waste and fraud in the charter school sector’s spending of tax dollars, especially by the for-profit Charter Management Organizations. NPE has also condemned the damage to public school districts by rapid charter school growth. Its members have supported a tiny, four-person, mostly part time staff conducting research about what is really happening in the charter school sector.

Despite that federal law has previously prohibited grants to for-profit charter schools, in a 2021 report, Chartered for Profit, the Network for Public Education exposed that too many nonprofits have been turning over virtually all of their state and federal dollars to a for-profit management company without any oversight of the use of the money: “Despite strict regulations against the disbursement of funds from the federal Charter Schools Program to charter schools operated by for-profit entities, we identified over 440 charter schools operated for profit that received grants totaling approximately $158 million between 2006 and 2017, including Charter Schools Program grants to schools managed with for-profit sweeps contracts.”

In an earlier report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education found that the U.S. Department of Education has not been a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in its management of the Charter Schools Program. “Based on what we found, we believe it is likely that one billion dollars of federal ‘seed money’ has been wasted on charters that never opened or shut their doors. We were equally dismayed to find that many of the Charter Schools Program-funded charter schools that survived did not fulfill their stated mission, especially in regard to enrolling proportionate numbers of disadvantaged youth. As public dollars are pulled from public schools and a more disadvantaged student body is left behind, the students who attend their neighborhood schools have fewer resources and greater challenges.”

Research from the Network for Public Education has been replicated by other researchers. In a report for In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer showed how charter schools in just one school district, Oakland, California, suck $57.3 million every year out of the public schools that serve the majority of Oakland’s children and adolescents.  Amazingly, in a series of biennial reports, the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has condemned the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement for poor oversight of the Charter Schools Program.  And in 2021, Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, published a book, School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment, showing all the ways charter school operators select their students and leave behind in public schools the students who are most likely to need additional expensive additional services—including disabled students and English language learners.

I live in Ohio, where the charter school sector has been out of control for over two decades. When the U.S. Department of Education published its proposed new rules and asked for public comment, I was moved by the comment submitted on behalf of Policy Matters Ohio by Piet Van Lier, who strongly endorses the proposed rule that would ban federal grants to nonprofit charter schools managed by for-profit management companies: “More than 10 years ago Policy Matters began tracking abuses by for-profit management companies operating schools in Ohio. We documented abuses by Imagine Schools, which had a poor record of performance in our state and a business model driven by elaborate school real estate transactions, high management and operations fees paid by nonprofit schools to the corporation, overlapping business relationships, low spending on classroom instruction, and tight control of school finances and business relationships.”

Van Lier continues: “Our subsequent research found additional problematic practices by management corporations including: hand-picking board members of charter schools that are by law responsible for school operations; preventing schools from hiring their own independent attorneys, accountants, and auditors; binding schools to them contractually and financially, making it impossible to seek new management; controlling school revenue from public sources; claiming ownership of school equipment purchased with public funds; and loaning money to schools well above market rates. We also documented the practice of management corporations pretending to comply with Ohio law mandating school closure for poor academic performance by simply changing the names of schools and re-opening them in the same location with largely the same staff. These practices continue today.”

Policy Matters also endorses the need for charter school startups to conduct an impact study and demonstrate the need for the new school: “Examples abound… of charter schools opening simply because they have access to a building and want the public funding that will flow to the school, even if they cannot meet enrollment targets and have no evidence that they have talked to families and other stakeholders in the community about what kinds of schools are needed. Requiring schools and operators to demonstrate community need and interest in their models is simply good policy and will prevent the over-saturation of charter schools many urban areas already face.”

We should certainly not be surprised when the charter school lobby, represented by the National Association of Public Charter Schools, sponsors a rally to protest more stringent rules to block the flow of federal funds to charter schools.  We must also hope that staff in the U.S. Department of Education carefully read the thousands of comments thanking the Department for proposing new regulations to end the flow of federal dollars to for-profit management companies and to require charter school sponsors to consider the needs of the communities where they propose to locate new charter schools.

Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Is the Story of Today’s America

A highlight of the Network for Public Education’s recent national conference was the keynote address from Jitu Brown, a gifted and dedicated Chicago community organizer and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  His remarks made me think about the meaning of the last two decades of corporate school reform and the conditions today in his city and here where I live in greater Cleveland, Ohio.  It is a sad story.

Brown reflected on his childhood experience at a West Side Chicago elementary school, a place where he remembers being exposed to a wide range of information and experience including the study of a foreign language. He wondered, “Why did we have good neighborhood schools when I went to school but our kids don’t have them anymore? For children in poor neighborhoods, their education is not better.”

Brown described how No Child Left Behind’s basic drilling and test prep in the two subjects for which NCLB demands testing—math and language arts—eat up up more and more of the school day. We can consult Harvard University expert on testing, Daniel Koretz, for the details about why the testing regime has been particularly hard on children in schools where poverty is concentrated: “Inappropriate test preparation… is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it—in particular, above the ‘proficient’ cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 116-117)

Of course, a narrowed curriculum is only one factor in today’s inequity.  Derick W. Black and Axton Crolley explain: “(A) 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Again and again in his recent keynote address, Jitu Brown described the consequences of Chicago’s experiment with corporate accountability-based school reform.  Chicago is a city still coping with the effect of the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in June of 2013—part of the collateral damage of the Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion—a portfolio school reform program administered by Arne Duncan to open charter schools and close neighborhood schools deemed “failing,” as measured by standardized test scores. On top of the charter expansion, Chicago instituted student-based-budgeting, which has trapped a number of Chicago public schools in a downward spiral as students experiment with charter schools and as enrollment diminishes, both of which spawn staffing and program cuts and put the school on a path toward closure.

As Jitu Brown reflected on his inspiring elementary school experience a long time ago, I thought about a moving recent article by Carolyn Cooper, a long time resident of Cleveland, Ohio’s East Glenville neighborhood: “I received a stellar education in elementary, junior high, and high school from the… Cleveland Public School system… All of the schools I attended were within walking distance, or only a few miles from my home. And at Iowa-Maple Elementary School, a K-6 school at the time, I was able to join the French Club and study abroad for months in both Paris and Lyon, France… Flash forward to this present day… To fight the closure of both Iowa-Maple and Collinwood High School, a few alumni attended a school facilities meeting held in October 2019 at Glenville High School… Despite our best efforts, Collinwood remained open but Iowa-Maple still closed down… Several generations of my family, as well as the families of other people who lived on my street, were alumni there.  I felt it should have remained open because it was a 5-Star school, offering a variety of programs including gifted and advanced courses, special education, preschool offerings, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

In his keynote address last week, Jitu Brown explained: “Justice and opportunity depend on the institutions to which children have access.” Brown’s words brought to my mind another part of Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood less than a mile from Iowa-Maple Elementary School. If you drive along Lakeview Road between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, you see a neighborhood with older homes of a size comfortable for families and scattered newer rental housing built about twenty years ago with support from tax credits. You also see many empty lots where houses were abandoned and later demolished in the years following the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Separated by several blocks, you pass two large weedy tracts of land which were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—abandoned by the school district and boarded up for years before they were demolished. You pass by a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel.  Finally you pass a dilapidated, abandoned nursing home which for several years housed the Virtual Schoolhouse, a charter school that advertised on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses until it shut down in 2018.

My children went to school in Cleveland Heights, only a couple of miles from Glenville. Cleveland Heights-University Heights is a mixed income, racially integrated, majority African American, inner-ring suburban school district. Our children can walk to neighborhood public schools that are a great source of community pride. Our community is not wealthy, but we have managed to pass our school levies to support our children with strong academics. We recently passed a bond issue to update and repair our old high school, where my children had the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra, and play sports in addition to the excellent academic program.

Jitu Brown helped organize and lead the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike, which forced the Chicago Public Schools to reopen a shuttered South Side Chicago high school. Brown does not believe that charter schools and vouchers are the way to increase opportunity for children in places like Chicago’s South and West Sides and Cleveland’s Glenville and Collinwood neighborhoods.  He explains: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools…. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

In the powerful final essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, agrees with Jitu Brown about what ought to be the promise of public education for every child in America:

“Let’s move forward guided by an unshakable first principle: Public education is a human right and a basic community responsibility… Every child has the right to a free, high-quality education. A decent, generously staffed school facility must be in easy reach for every family… What the most privileged parents have for their public school children right now—small class sizes, fully trained and well compensated teachers, physics and chemistry labs, sports teams, physical education and athletic fields and gymnasiums, after-school and summer programs, generous arts programs that include music, theater, and fine arts—is the baseline for what we want for all children.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 314-315) (emphasis in the original)

Ohio Charter School Sector Epitomizes All the Reasons Why the Federal Charter Schools Program Must Be Reformed

In its new report, Public Schooling in America: Measuring Each State’s Commitment to Democratically Governed Schools, the Network for Public Education (NPE) grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on their commitment to the institution of public education, or alternatively in some states, their commitment to privatized marketplace school choice at the expense of their public school districts.

This blog will take a short spring break.  Look for a new post on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

Implicit in the report is an understanding of the decades-old role of public education in the United States. Public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million U.S. children and adolescents are served. Public schools are the optimal way to balance the obligation to meet the needs of each particular student with the public responsibility for creating a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all students.

The Network for Public Education documents that some states are abandoning this public purpose: “Not only do we grade the states based on their willingness to commit exclusively or primarily to democratically governed public schools open to all, but their willingness to put sufficient guardrails and limits on publicly-funded alternatives to ensure that taxpayers, students, and families are protected from discrimination, corruption and fraud in the programs they have.”

Ohio ranks third from the bottom, according to the Network for Public Education’s new report.  Its legislature’s commitment to the expansion of both publicly funded private school tuition vouchers and to the growth of an unregulated charter school sector sets it on a path toward becoming “a publicly-funded, uncoordinated, free-for-all parading as an education system.”

Earlier this month, the expansion and oversight of charter schools took center stage in the policy debate as the U.S. Department of Education proposed to tighten up oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), founded in 1994 to spur innovation by expanding charter schools. The program has been shown by the Network for Public Education and by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General to be poorly regulated, and in early April the Department proposed to strengthen its own rules and regulations.  When a period of public comment was initiated, the charter school lobby stimulated a storm of comments opposing regulations.  Public school supporters submitted a mass of comments supporting better oversight.

Piet van Lier submitted a comment on behalf of Policy Matters Ohio which caught my attention because it speaks so profoundly about the reasons why NPE’s new report awards Ohio an “F” for its lagging support for the public schools that serve 1.8 million of our state’s children.

First, the comment from Policy Matters Ohio speaks to the need for much stronger rules and regulations to rein in the for-profit charter management companies that have been ripping off Ohio’s taxpayers for two decades:

“As a state policy research institute, Policy Matters believes that public education is an essential public good and must be fully supported at every level of government, from local to state, to federal. For decades now we have been tracking the growth of charter schools in Ohio, and for that reason we are encouraged by the proposed changes to rules governing the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP)… We strongly support the proposed change that charter schools receiving CSP funding must provide assurance that they have not and will not enter a contract with any for-profit charter school management organization…. More than 10 years ago Policy Matters began tracking abuses by for-profit management companies operating schools in Ohio. We documented abuses by Imagine Schools, which had a poor record of performance in our state and a business model driven by elaborate school real estate transactions, high management and operations fees paid by nonprofit schools to the corporation, overlapping business relationships, low spending on classroom instruction, and tight control of school finances and business relationships.”

Van Lier continues: “Our subsequent research found additional problematic practices by management corporations including: hand-picking board members of charter schools that are by law responsible for school operations; preventing schools from hiring their own independent attorneys, accountants, and auditors; binding schools to them contractually and financially, making it impossible to seek new management; controlling school revenue from public sources; (and) claiming ownership of school equipment purchased with public funds and loaning money to schools well above market rates. We also documented the practice of management corporations pretending to comply with Ohio law mandating school closure for poor academic performance by simply changing the names of schools and re-opening them in the same location with largely the same staff. These practices continue today.”

Policy Matters also supports a second rule the U.S. Department of Education has proposed. To qualify for federal funds, the new charter school would be required to conduct and report on a community impact study to demonstrate the need for the new charter school.

Van Lier writes: “We strongly support new rules that would require charter schools receiving CSP grants to demonstrate need for the proposed schools and locations and to provide evidence that they engaged with residents in planning for the schools.” Policy Matters summarizes Ohio’s very different experience with charter school startups: “Examples abound… of charter schools opening simply because they have access to a building and want the public funding that will flow to the school, even if they cannot meet enrollment targets and have no evidence that they have talked to families and other stakeholders in the community about what kinds of schools are needed. Requiring schools and operators to demonstrate community need and interest in their models is simply good policy and will prevent the over-saturation of charter schools many urban areas already face.”

Of course, many of the appalling practices Policy Matters describes will not cease even if the new federal rules are formally adopted and enforced. The federal Charter Schools Program provides only a fraction of the funds fueling a rapidly growing and poorly regulated charter sector in Ohio. But strengthening the federal rules would set an important precedent which just might help increase public pressure on a legislature like Ohio’s, which, as the Network for Public Education’s new report explains, seems bent on expanding publicly funded school privatization at the expense of the public schools. Remember, NPE ranks Ohio third from the bottom in its support for public schools—ahead of only Florida and Arizona.