Senate Deletes Fair School Funding Plan. FY22-23 Ohio Budget Moves to Conference Committee

The Ohio Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the state’s FY 2022-2023 state budget late Tuesday.  On Wednesday the bill moved to the Senate floor where it passed by a vote of 25 to 8, along party lines. Debate will now move to a House-Senate conference committee.

This blog will take a one week early summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, June 21st.

Gongwer summarizes this week’s Senate’s action: “The Senate Finance Committee voted along party lines Tuesday afternoon to report the two-year spending outline (HB110) after accepting a multi-pronged omnibus amendment… The widely supported House-passed K-12 funding overhaul ditched by the Senate will be a top matter of discussion between the GOP-led chambers….  Before the vote, the committee’s Democrats offered several amendments, including proposals to…  reinstate the House’s school funding plan….”

In a powerful editorial on Wednesday (linked here to a pdf version because the editorial is paywalled), the Cleveland Plain Dealer castigated the Senate’s deletion of the House’s Fair School Funding Plan.  The House plan—now pushed aside—was designed over a period of three years by an expert Ohio House-appointed committee to restore adequate, cost-based state school funding and to remedy what has become the widespread  over-reliance by school districts on local property tax levies to fund even the most basic services.

The Plain Dealer explains: “The Senate version would fail to enact the bi-partisan, educator-backed Fair School Funding Plan first proposed by Rep. Robert Cupp, a Lima Republican, now the House’s speaker, and former Rep. John Patterson, a Jefferson Democrat. The Cupp-Patterson plan would assure school funding equity. The Senate counteroffer doesn’t.  It postpones a nearly inevitable day of reckoning when another school funding lawsuit, like the DeRolph case decided in 1997, determines legislators aren’t doing right by public school pupils. The Senate says it’s just being frugal but the numbers belie that.  Its proposal would add to inequities in school funding while perpetuating divisions over something that should unite Ohioans of all political stripes—the need to invest in our children.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors add that another problem in the Senate plan is the expansion of school vouchers: “The Ohio House version of the budget, which includes the Cupp-Patterson innovations, passed on a strikingly bipartisan 70-27 House vote. Tellingly… the Senate plan is not likely to achieve the same broad political backing, largely because it discards the balance the House achieved. The Senate plan, for instance, vastly expands eligibility for tax-funded school vouchers.  Vouchers help parents pay for private schools. But the Ohio Constitution, which legislators swear to uphold, requires the General Assembly to ‘secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.’  That is, public schools are the legislature’s first responsibility. Committee testimony by backers of the House’s approach pointed out that the Senate plan raises the ceiling on EdChoice voucher awards for pupils from kindergarten to 8th grade to $5,500 (from the current $4,650) and for pupils in grades 9-12 to $7,500 (from the $6,000 current ceiling).  Legislative analysts estimate the higher ceilings will cost the state $163.5 million over two years.”

The Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan was designed to address Ohio’s long-standing and growing school funding inequity. The Fair School Funding Plan would fulfill the very definition by Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker of what a school funding formula should be. “School funding is largely in the hands of states, and the primary job of states’ finance systems should be to account for differences between their districts in the cost of providing that minimal level of educational quality, and then to distribute funds in a manner that compensates for the fact that some districts have less ability than others to pay these costs (e.g. via property taxes).  For instance, districts serving large proportions of high-needs students will tend to have higher costs; if those districts lack the local capacity to pay those costs, state revenue needs to fill the gaps.”

In May 6, 2021 testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Ohio education funding expert, Howard Fleeter describes how the framers of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan designed the plan to address what has been alarming and  long-standing inequity in Ohio school finance:  “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in particular has lagged well behind the growth in the number of such students over the past 20 years (funding has increased 22% while the number of (these) students has increased 61% since FY01)… Studies in other states have indicated that the additional costs of educating low-income students are typically 30% or more… Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid should be retained as is the case in the HB110 funding formula (the Fair School Funding Plan).  These two formula components supplement formula funding by providing additional funds to low wealth districts that lack the tax base to pursue local educational initiatives in the same manner that wealthier districts can through local levies.”

The Plain Dealer‘s editors additionally question the Senate’s inclusion of a 5% income tax cut in its new budget: “Then there are the Senate’s expanded tax cuts, which could run afoul of requirements in federal COVID-19 stimulus aid not to use the money as an offset for tax cuts. The Senate proposes to expand a 2% House-proposed income tax cut to 5% by the second year, resulting in an estimated $874 million state revenue loss over the next two years… Spending $874 million on schools would be an investment. Dribbling it away on individually puny tax cuts is a stunt. A reckless stunt, given that it could imperil needed COVID relief dollars.  And an irresponsible stunt, in light of the pressing state spending needs made apparent during the pandemic….” “(F)or an Ohioan with an annual income from $41,000 to $64,000, the Senate plan would save an average of $22 a year (43 cents a week).”

Policy Matter’s Ohio’s Wendy Patton amplifies these facts in testimony she presented to the Senate Finance Committee to document who would benefit from the Senate’s proposed 5% tax cut: “Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.”

The next Ohio budget will be negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee which must create a compromise before July 1. The Plain Dealer‘s editorial board  describes what needs to happen in the next two weeks: “Conferees’ priority should be writing a budget that shelves dubious tax cuts and fairly funds public schools—which, as it now stands, the Senate’s proposal doesn’t do.”

This blog has posted here on the Ohio House’s Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan.

This blog has posted here and here on the Ohio Senate’s plan which is less adequate and less equitable.

Ohio Activists Speak Out to Protest Injustices in Ohio Senate’s Substitute School Funding Plan

Last week, educators and policy experts spoke out clearly and profoundly against the Ohio Senate Finance Committee’s insertion into the next state budget of its own deficient and flawed school funding plan as a substitute for the Fair School Funding Plan that was part of the House Budget.

The Fair School Funding Plan—developed over three and a half years by experts, passed by a huge margin in the Ohio House and inserted into the House Budget—was designed to remedy a school funding formula that has ceased to work for any of the state’s 610 school districts during the current biennium.  Angry supporters of adequate and equitably distributed public school funding spoke last week to oppose the new Senate proposal which fails to remedy problems with public school funding and also expands school privatization.

Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton provided Senate Finance Committee testimony last week to oppose the Senate Finance Committee’s proposed 5 percent income tax cut: “This money will not significantly benefit most Ohioans and the cut will drain resources needed for good schools, better child welfare services and other public services that benefit all Ohioans…  Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years.  While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.”  Tax cuts in Ohio over the past decade and a half are a primary reason for the shocking statistic Patton provided in a recent Policy Matters report: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

Also testifying to oppose the Senate Finance Committee’s school funding plan were Thomas Hosler, Superintendent of the Perrysburg Schools; Ryan Pendleton, Treasurer of the Akron Public Schools; and Mike Sobul of Forecast5 Analytics, all the members of the expert committee which designed the Fair School Funding Plan that is part of the House Budget—the plan which the Senate Finance Committee rejected last Tuesday.  Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul began by pointing out that historically, Ohio school funding has relied on “residual budgeting,” a practice deemed unconstitutional in the DeRolph decision. Instead of basing the state’s school funding formula on what school district staff and programs actually cost, Ohio legislators have merely been used to plugging in a number based on current revenues available to be divided among the state’s many fiscal responsibilities.

Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul explain that their Fair School Funding Plan would be constitutional partly because it is based on the real costs school districts must incur: “What makes the Fair School Funding Plan… unique is that for the first time we stepped away from the practice of residual budgeting to fund education, and instead, asked what it costs to educate the ‘typical’ child. We answered this question by analyzing and evaluating the national research and established best practices in education, as well as the expertise and judgement of professionals in the field to determine the funding necessary to ensure that Ohio’s youth has access to high quality educational opportunities… The Fair School Funding Plan funds students where they need it most through a meticulously constructed base cost… Constructing base costs was a painstaking process of determining component-by-component the necessary instructional and support personnel, services, and building and district leadership essential in providing every public school student the basic foundation funding…. (F)rom the outset, the Senate’s formula suggests that the end goal is to substantiate a lower base cost and not properly determine an adequate education for a typical student.”  Hosler, Pendleton, and Sobul contrast the operation of their Fair School Funding Plan  to what they believe is the Senate’s defective substitute. (You will find this testimony archived under Ryan Pendleton’s name.)

Senate leaders do increase school funding in the next two years, but their plan would fall short over the long run.  They argue that it would be irresponsible to pass the Fair School Funding Plan, which has a six year phase in as part of its design, because perhaps there won’t be enough state revenues after the FY 22-23 biennium. Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro pointed out last week that, with the economy recovering, the state currently has adequate revenue to launch the Fair School Funding Plan: “Clearly, from a state budget standpoint, revenue has recovered and the state is seeing pretty robust revenue growth… Just through that natural growth, there are clearly the dollars available to fully and fairly fund our schools. The Senate chose instead, rather than doing that, to impose a 5% cut to our state income tax.”

The Senate’s substitute school funding plan also increases school privatization in several ways.  First, the Ohio Senate proposes to increase the amount of already existing private school tuition vouchers from $6,000 to $7,500 for each high school voucher and from $4,650 to $5,500 for each K-8 voucher.  DiMauro puts the Senate’s proposed voucher expansion in context: “Under the Senate plan, a high school student getting a private school voucher would receive more state aid than kids attending 80% of Ohio’s public schools… K-8 voucher students would get more funding than public school students at about 50% of public schools.”

The Senate also includes two small new neo-voucher programs in its budget plan: a new tuition tax credit voucher program of up to $2,500 per year to pay private school tuition for families with income below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, and a $250 tax credit for home schooling families to buy educational materials. And finally the Ohio Senate proposes to remove geographical limits on the siting of new charter schools, which were limited in the past to urban school districts and other low income communities. Now, under the Senate proposal last week, new charter schools could be scattered across the state.

The people testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last week identified important funding deficiencies in the Senate’s new plan, and they protested the diversion of tax dollars students would carry away from public schools to privatized alternatives. But there is a deeper, foundational problem here.  House and Senate versions of a new school funding plan in Ohio represent radically conflicting political ideologies. The Ohio House Fair School Funding Plan acknowledges that government has a responsibility to provide a system of public schools. The Ohio Senate adheres instead to a belief system articulated widely by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and promoted by organizations like EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which declares its purpose: “The EdChoice mission is to advance educational freedom and choice for all as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.”

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, educational historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire dig into the principles underneath school privatization: “Education is a personal good, not a collective one. It is more like private property than like a public park… Schools belong in the domain of the free market, not the government. They should be under the purview of personal preference and choice, not regulation and oversight.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xx)

Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning traces the history of the idea of public education in the United States as a public good, not merely a personal benefit. The Founders understood public schooling’s purpose as the formation of public citizens. After the Civil War, the principles underlying the public meaning education were strengthened as states of the former Confederacy were required to provide for public schooling in their state constitutions as a requirement for rejoining the Union: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions…. (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 53)

Under the Ohio Constitution our public schools epitomize our mutual public responsibility to Ohio’s children.  Twenty-four years ago, the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted our state constitution to require adequate school funding equitably distributed across the state’s school districts.  They explicitly rejected what they called overreliance on local property taxes. Three and a half years ago, keeping in mind that the goal of every good school funding formula is to use state taxes from wealthier communities to support quality programming in the public schools districts where the local property tax base is inadequate, the Ohio House gathered a committee of experts who drafted the Fair School Funding Plan. The goal? To ensure that students in Ohio’s poorest communities would be able to enjoy the same quality programming as students in exurbs where median income and property appraisals are higher .

The Ohio Senate has demonstrated that it is now prepared to throw away the Ohio House’s plan for adequate and equitable public school funding. Over time, the Senate’s substitute plan would fall short of adequate public school funding while driving ever more tax dollars to private and charter schools.  If the Ohio Senate passes the plan proposed last week by the Senate Finance Committee, advocates must demand that the Ohio House members serving on the budget conference committee stand firm in their support for the Fair School Funding Plan.

Proposed Ohio Senate Budget Reduces House-Approved Increase in Public School Funding, Increases Voucher Amounts and Creates New School Privatization Programs

On Tuesday, the Ohio Senate Finance Committee turned away from the new Fair School Funding Plan, which the Ohio House passed by a large margin as part of its proposed FY 2022-2023 state budget.  The Ohio Senate instead inserted its own plan into the Senate’s budget, a plan which, according to Plain Dealer reporter, Laura Hancock, reduces new public school funding over six years to about a third of the House version, increases funding for school privatization, and cuts personal income taxes by 5 percent.

The Ohio Senate Budget Cuts Taxes

The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes Ohio Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan justifying the Ohio Senate’s proposed 5 percent income tax cut: “The best investment we can make in a citizen is to return their money to themselves.”

The founders of our nation, those who framed the Ohio Constitution, and the justices who decided DeRolph v. Ohio understood the role of government very differently than Senator Dolan. Public education is enshrined in all the 50 state constitutions with the recognition that it is one of the primary responsibilities of the state. The Ohio Constitution defines public schools as an institution at the center of the social contract; public schools epitomize our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children  Under the language of our state constitution as interpreted in DeRolph, it is our state government’s responsibility to provide a system of well funded public schools to serve every child—rich or poor; Black, Hispanic, white or Native American; English language learner or disabled. Paying taxes for government services including public schools is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses, with the greatest obligation assumed by those with the greatest financial means.

The Ohio House gathered a committee of experts who drafted the Fair School Funding Plan over three and a half years for the purpose of ensuring that Ohio school finance would be adequate to cover the costs of the most basic educational services and to ensure that students in Ohio’s poorest communities would attend schools with enough guidance counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school libraries, enriched curriculum, art and music programs, and small classes.  State taxes from wealthier communities would help the state provide funding to support such necessities in poorer communities where the local property tax base is inadequate. State school funding formulas are designed for the very purpose of enabling state governments to ensure that our society provides access to quality public schools for every child as a matter of basic decency.

State tax cuts in Ohio have over time shifted the responsibility for funding public schools onto the residents of local school districts themselves, a practice DeRolph called “overreliance on local property taxes” and found unconstitutional. Overreliance on local property taxes is extremely disequalizing, because the residents of a wealthy community find it much easier to pass local property taxes on their often much higher property tax base while the residents of poor communities are simply forced to increase class size, lay off guidance counselors, and cut urgently needed programs.

Here are the ways the Ohio Senate’s school funding plan—substituted into the FY 22-23 Senate Budget for the Fair School Funding Plan in the House Budget—will undermine justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Senate Budget Will Not Provide Adequate Public School Funding

Ohio needs a new funding formula because currently none of the state’s school districts has been receiving the amount of funding the old formula should have been delivering. The majority of school districts have either been capped or on hold-harmless guarantee for several years, but in the current FY 20-21 biennium, state funding for schools has been frozen at the FY 2019 level. Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

The Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports that the Ohio House Budget’s Fair School Funding Plan, when fully phased in over six years, would provide an average of $7,020 per pupil to be adjusted by categorical funding for disabled students, English language learners, and students living in poverty. The just-proposed school funding plan in the Senate’s budget would add more money up front in the next two years (the upcoming biennium) than the House’s Fair School Funding Plan—$6,065 per pupil for next school year and $6,110 in the second year of the biennium, but the Senate’s plan does not provide for any further phased-in increase after FY 2023.

I asked Howard Fleeter, a long time expert on Ohio school funding, about the Senate’s new plan.  He told me that the Senate plan does not adequately compensate for inflation. Fleeter says the Senate is using a formula similar to what was known as the Building Blocks approach back in FY 2008 and FY 2009. He further explains: “A conservative estimate of updating the FY 09 building blocks-based base cost amount of $5,732 for inflation would get us to nearly $7,000 per pupil.  So $6,065 per pupil seems low.” Experts designed and fine-tuned the Ohio House’s Fair School Funding Plan to respond to what school districts actually need for providing sufficient services at today’s prices. Fleeter believes that the Senate’s proposed substitute formula would be inadequate to cover necessary costs school districts face.

The Ohio Senate Budget Expands School Privatization at Taxpayer Expense

The Ohio Constitution does not envision education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual student. There is no provision under our state’s constitution for private school tuition voucher programs or for charter schools.

  • Gongwer reports that in its new budget proposal, the Senate would increase the amount of taxpayer funded, private school EdChoice tuition vouchers and Cleveland Scholarship vouchers for students in grades K-8 from the current $4,650 to $5,500, and for students in grades 9-12 from $6,000 to $7,500. The size of each high school voucher as proposed in this plan would actually exceed the proposed public school per-pupil base cost by $1,435 in the first year of the budget biennium and $1,390 in the second year of the biennium. Why do our state senators endorse paying significantly more tax dollars to private schools to educate high school students than the Senate proposes to invest in the students enrolled in the state’s public high schools?
  • Gongwer adds that the Senate has sneaked what appears to be both a small tuition tax credit neo-voucher program and a small education savings account neo-voucher program into the fine print of its budget proposal: “Another private school-related change would create a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year for non-chartered nonpublic school tuition for families with income below 300% of federal poverty guidelines. A $250 tax credit for educational materials and supplies would be available to parents who home-school their children.” In other states, such programs have persistently grown after initially being introduced as small programs.
  • Ohio has in the past prohibited the widespread scattering of charter schools across the state. Gongwer reports that the Senate proposes to remove geographical limits on the siting of charter schools in its proposed budget: “Another charter-related change eliminates the restriction that prevents new charters from opening outside of a ‘challenged school district.’  The policy would allow such schools to be established outside of the major eight urban districts and school systems that perform poorly on state-issued report cards.”

In one positive move, Ohio’s state senators, propose to eliminate school district deduction funding for vouchers and charter schools.  According to Gongwer, “The Senate school funding model, similar to the House proposal, would also see the state providing direct funding for students who attend charter schools and use private school vouchers such as EdChoice Scholarship Program awards.”  The plan for the state to fully fund school privatization is urgently important overall, but it has become especially urgent because the state now limits eligibility for EdChoice vouchers to students who live in the attendance areas of Title I schools, which are federally designated because they serve concentrations of children in poverty. Currently the EdChoice voucher program extracts the cost of the vouchers exclusively from the local budgets of school districts serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and very often the cost of the voucher is far greater than the amount the state awards these districts in basic aid for each of these students. School district deduction funding for EdChoice vouchers has become an increasingly significant source of school finance inequity since the program’s eligibility was limited to students in living in Title I public school attendance zones.

The Ohio Constitution provides for adequate and equitably distributed public school funding, rejects overreliance on local property taxes, and omits any provision for tax supported private school tuition vouchers or charter schools. If the Ohio Senate passes the plan being proposed this week by the Senate Finance Committee, it will be essential that the Ohio House members serving on the budget conference committee stand firm in their support for the Fair School Funding Plan.

President Biden Proposes to Offer Extra Title I Grants as Incentives to Encourage States to Do Justice

The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations provided financial incentive grants to states to encourage them to expand charter schools. (The federal Charter Schools Program still exists, and I am hoping the Biden administration gets rid of it!) And the Obama administration provided Race to the Top incentive grants to urge states to adopt common standards paired with standardized tests and to evaluate teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. These were all part of a more than two decades’ scheme of standardized, test-based, corporate-style accountability that provided incentives to reward teachers who produced high test scores and punishments for teachers and schools that couldn’t produce rising scores.  While the assumption was that teachers and schools could, by adopting particular practices, produce jumps in test scores, the reality has proven far more complicated and challenging, and anyway, most of us agree that test scores should not be the sole way of judging the quality of education.

Now the Biden administration is proposing something more constructive and even revolutionary: Biden is proposing to use Title I grants to encourage state legislatures to increase and equalize school funding across school districts. President Biden seeks to press states to abide by the language of their state constitutions, and thereby provide a system of well funded schools to serve every child—rich or poor; Black, Hispanic, white or Native American; English language learner or disabled child.  President Biden is proposing to use federal funds to incentivize the states—which under the 50 state constitutions, have the primary responsibility for fairly funding public education—to do justice.

The president’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal, announced last Friday, now will be considered by Congress, which has to appropriate the money. Congress rarely passes the same budget presented by the President. But the budget President Biden proposed last Friday is a significant statement of his values and priorities.  Many of the ideas from the American Families Plan are included. And, significantly, the new budget proposal would extend the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit until 2025.

Education Week‘s Evie Blad outlines the education section of Biden’s FY 22 budget proposal: “President Joe Biden proposed an ambitious $6 trillion national budget Friday that calls for dramatic increases in spending on K-12 education, including $20 billion in new incentives to states to raise teacher pay and address inequity in school funding. The proposal would increase the U.S. Department of Education’s discretionary budget for the coming fiscal year to $102.8 billion, about 41 percent above current levels.” Blad reports that Biden’s proposed budget would:

  • Increase Title I to $36.5 billion from $16 billion;
  • Begin the phase in of $100 billion over t0 years for school infrastructure;
  • Add $3.5 billion for universal preschool in the Department of Health and Human Services and provide two years of free community college;
  • Increase funding to $16 billion for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—an increase of $2.7 billion;
  • Increase funding for full service, wraparound Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million;
  • Invest $1 billion to double the number of guidance counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and school social workers; and
  • Spend $25 million to make schools environmentally friendly.

The biggest, the most significant, and very likely the most controversial part of President Biden’s education budget is the increase in Title I, the Education Department’s oldest program—dating to 1965—and designed to provide extra federal funding for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty to help compensate for inequities within and across state school funding systems.

Blad explains: “At the core of Biden’s education budget (are) new ‘equity grants’ that would increase funding for Title I, a grant program for educating disadvantaged students, to $36.5 billion from about $16 billion, the largest increase in the history of the program. That new funding would ‘build on the existing Title I program,’ flowing through a new formula that would address state and local funding models that ‘favor wealthier districts over districts with concentrated poverty.’… Politicians concerned about equity have long pointed to challenges with the nation’s education funding systems as a concern.  Predominantly white districts receive about $23 billion more funding (from state and local sources combined) than districts that predominantly serve students of color….”

Blad further explains the administration’s justification for the new Title I grants: “Some lawmakers have said the existing Title I formula does not adequately address funding gaps between schools. Rather than replace that formula entirely, the Biden plan would break out new Title I funds into a separate grant. To access that funding, states would have to submit plans about how they would track and address gaps in their funding systems, ensure teachers are compensated at levels comparable to other professionals with similar education and experience, ensure students have access to advanced coursework, and increase access to early-childhood programs.”

Living in Ohio, I am acutely aware of the need for somebody to press our state senate to make our state’s school funding formula work for children who live in economically and racially segregated school districts. This month the Ohio Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the state budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed to the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes. In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”  Earlier this spring, the Ohio House passed the six-year phase-in of the new Fair School Funding Plan as part of its version of the proposed state budget, but, yesterday the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported that the Senate Finance Committee wants to reduce new public school funding over six years to about a third of the House version, increase funding for vouchers, and cut personal income taxes by 5 percent. Senate leaders claim it is dangerous to pass a plan for the upcoming biennium that will constrain future legislatures as the Fair School Funding Plan’s six-year phase-in would need to continue. The House and Senate versions will need to be reconciled by the end of June.

Ohio is part of a much broader pattern. School finance experts Bruce Baker and Mark Weber recently tracked a trend of declining states’ fiscal efforts over the past twenty-five years to fund their public schools. These economists compared each state’s total K-12 education spending to the state’s fiscal capacity as measured by aggregate personal income. State fiscal effort for education, not surprisingly collapsed after the Great Recession: “What happened starting in 2010 was disastrous in two respects.  First, average effort declined rapidly for 3-4 years, bottoming out well below its pre-recession level. Second, it did not recover in subsequent years. In other words, as of now, the decline in fiscal effort appears permanent.”

In a fine book published last autumn, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black documents the same trend, still evident a dozen years after the Great Recession: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Have the cuts in spending affected students’ experience at school? Last summer,  C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”

Eliminating Federal Charter Schools Program Would Curb Academic and Financial Abuses by Charter Operators

Charter schools are a form of private contracting, but across the 45 states which have authorized charter schools, the state laws that created these schools are different. Some states let school districts themselves authorize charter schools; other states override local authorization through state authority or permit other outside authorizers.  And the amount of and quality of oversight varies. The original goal was to stimulate innovation by reducing what charter proponents alleged was the bureaucratic regulatory straitjacket that, they claimed, constrains traditional public schools.

This blog will take Memorial Day off.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, June 2.

Charter schools originated in the early 1990s, and now, nearly three decades later as the charter school sector has matured, we discover what might have been predicted in an education sector paid for with public tax dollars but at the same time operated privately with little oversight. The Network for Public Education has set up a web page to track the hundreds of scandals reported year after year across the United States in local newspapers.

But there are also the stories of larger and more shocking scandals, often involving mismanagement by the chains of charter schools, some of them operated by charter management organizations (CMOs).  Here are four examples reported just this spring.  Three of the scandals are financial; one involves the violation of students’ rights in a CMO that made its reputation with zero-tolerance discipline.

  • In early March, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a giant, online charter school put out of business in the winter of 2018 after years of charging the state per-pupil fees for, it turns out, students who were not participating in its online program, was still in court trying to block the state of Ohio from recovering $80 million, only a portion of the money the enterprise had ripped off over nearly two decades of operation: “ECOT appealed… (a lower court) decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, and justices heard oral arguments from both sides on Tuesday (March 2)….  It could take several months for the court to issue an opinion.” ECOT was technically a nonprofit, but its owner, William Lager, owned the two for-profit companies that operated the school and provided its curriculum.  Lager is still trying to protect his profits.
  • Also in March, a prominent New York City chain of charter schools was fined $2.4 million in a federal district court case, this time for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.” New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools have established a reputation for a regimented school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.
  • In late April, CNBC’s Dan Mangan reported that Seth Andrew, who founded the Democracy Prep charter schools in New York City’s Harlem and later worked as an education adviser in the Obama administration, was arrested for trying to steal $218,005 from the charter network: “Seth Andrew, who served as an education advisor in the Obama White House, was arrested Tuesday morning on charges of scheming to steal $218,005 from a public charter school network that he founded, federal authorities said. Andrew, 42, was busted in New York City, where he and his wife, CBS News anchor Lana Zak, have a residence valued at more than $2 million. The founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools is accused of using more than half of the allegedly stolen money from that network to maintain a bank account minimum that gave him a more favorable interest rate for a mortgage on his and Zak’s Manhattan residence.  Zak was not charged in the case. Prosecutors said Andrew, in 2019—more than two years after severing ties with Democracy Prep—looted  a series of escrow accounts he had previously set up for individual schools within Democracy Prep’s network, and then used their funds to open a business account in the name of one of the schools at a bank.”  A Washington Post‘s report adds: “Andrew’s career straddled the education field and government. In 2013, he joined the (Arne Duncan) Education Department. He later became a senior adviser in the Office of Educational Technology, a position at the (Obama) White House.”
  • Finally, just this week, we can read about the latest scandal at the huge IDEA charter school chain which, Diane Ravitch reported a year ago, had 49,500 students in 91 schools across Texas and in Louisiana. The co-founder and CEO at that time, Tom Torkelson resigned when the media learned he had purchased a private jet with IDEA dollars for the use of its executives and their families and after it was reported that he had used $400,000 annually of IDEA’s money (collected from public tax dollars) on luxury sky boxes for sporting events for the schools’ employees. Now a year later, the Houston Chronicle reports that the woman who replaced Torkelson as CEO, JoAnn Gama, and IDEA’s Chief Operating Officer, Irma Munoz, “have been fired after a forensic review found ‘substantial evidence’ that top leaders at the state’s largest charter network misused money and staff for personal gain… The firings followed an anonymous tip received after the departures last year of two other high-ranking IDEA leaders, former CEO Tom Torkelson and former CFO Wyatt Truseheit… IDEA board members chose Gama, who co-founded IDEA in the late 1990s with Torkelson, as the organization’s next CEO. Around the same time, IDEA’s board members promised to make several financial and governance reforms, such as banning private air travel, curbing executive benefits, and ending business deals with leaders and their family members.”

It is mind boggling to try to imagine reining in a publicly funded but privately operated education sector whose oversight depends on the actions of 45 different state legislatures, whose members are are the targets of well-paid lobbyists hired by charter school advocates and school operators. One possible source of public leverage, however, is the federal Charter Schools Program, which the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report shows has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across the states and the District of Columbia. NPE reports that this federal program dating back to 1994 has provided some funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the United States. The Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered by the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement to stimulate social entrepreneurship by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits as a substitute for public operation of public schools.  NPE’s report documents the U.S. Department of Education’s chronic failure to oversee this program—created and sustained by people who believe in innovation but who lack commitment to careful public stewardship.

Just a year ago, for example, the IDEA charter school network received a large federal Charter Schools Program grant in a special category of grants for large multi-school operators. Commenting on the release of the names of 2020 Charter Schools Program grants, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $200 million in grants to help 13 charter school networks from across the country expand. The largest grant, $72 million over five years, went to IDEA charter network, which has been rapidly growing throughout Texas and into other states and has already netted over $200 million in federal awards.” Less than a month after the 2020 Charter Schools Program awards were announced, Tom Torkelson resigned as CEO, and a year later his replacement and her CFO have been fired—all for financial mismanagement.

President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona should work with Congress to eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program.

School Privatizers Attack a Central Institution of American Democracy

Introducing a column by the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris on the explosion this year of legislation across the 50 state legislatures to expand school privatization, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss begins: “While many Americans see 2021 as the year that may bring back something close to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic, it has instead been declared the ‘Year of School Choice’ by the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes alternatives to public education and that was once headed by Betsy DeVos. Anyone who twas thinking that the departure of DeVos as U.S. education secretary would stem the movement to privatize public education should think again. In numerous states, legislatures have proposed or are considering legislation to expand alternatives to the public schools that educate most American schoolchildren, often using public funding to pay for private and religious school.”

In the piece that follows, Carol Burris examines the contention by Paul Petersen, the Harvard government professor who Burris reminds us is “a longtime cheerleader for market-based school reforms,” and Jeanne Allen who runs the Center for Education Reform, and who, “has never been shy in her hostility toward unions and traditional public schools,” that the legislatures considering school choice are doing so because parents are angry that public schools shut down during the pandemic.

Burris demonstrates that Petersen and Allen are wrong.  The states most active in promoting privatization are instead places where legislatures have tipped toward Republican majorities and in some cases Republican supermajorities.  And they are states where well-funded ideological lobbies for school privatization are working hard.

Burris describes today’s legislative climate for expansion of vouchers and charter schools: “Legislatures in 35 states have proposed bills to enact or expand voucher programs or charter schools. A few have passed; others have failed. Still others are sitting on governors’ desks or are stalled in the state’s House or Senate. Several are obvious attempts to please right-wing donors with no chance of moving out of committee. So far, eight states have enacted one or more bills.” She adds that despite what Petersen and Allen say, “red states with a high rate of open schools are where bills have been passed.”  So… this is definitely not a swelling of parents’ displeasure with public schools in the midst of a pandemic.

Burris covers several states according to a Burbio.com index which tracks the number of students who have been attending fully-open public schools. She explains that in Arkansas, whose legislature just passed a huge tuition tax credit voucher program, Burbio says that 96.8 percent of students were in school full time.  In Wyoming, where school districts have had the capacity to authorize charter schools but where, this spring the legislature created a new process (not yet signed by the governor) to expand charter school authorization to the state level, Burbio says 100 percent of students have been in full-time in-person schooling.  In West Virginia, where the legislature just expanded the number of charter schools, established state authorization of charter schools, permitted new virtual charter schools, and passed the biggest and most expensive Education Savings Account neovoucher program in the country, Burbio says 78 percent of students have been in full-time, in-person schooling.

If the pressure for expansion of vouchers and charter schools did not come from parents, who did it come from?  Burris lists the movers and shakers in four states:

  • In Arkansas, a group called the Reform Alliance (which operates another state voucher program paid for with state money) paid Trace Strategies $180,000 to lobby for the new voucher program. And the Walton Family Foundation donated $1,644,280 to the Reform Alliance.
  • In Wyoming, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools “bragged about how it lobbied for” passage of the new statewide authority to open charter schools.
  • In West Virginia, lobbyists included ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s organization); Stride (the new name of K12Inc.); the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; EdChoice Inc. (formerly the Friedman Foundation for EdChoice); Americans for Prosperity; and ACCEL (a for-profit charter chain run by Ron Packard, who formerly ran K12 Inc).
  • In Kentucky, lobbyists were Stride (formerly K12 Inc); the National Heritage Academies (a for-profit charter school chain); American for Prosperity; ExcelinEd; and Edchoice Kentucky (which Burris describes as a local branch of EdChoice Inc).

Burris concludes: “The movement’s agenda is clear in the minimal accountability and few protections for students included in these bills…. (T)he long-term goal is to undo public education—not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.”

It is a good time to review the ideology underneath the drive for school privatization and to contrast the values articulated by the privatizers with the values that have historically been the foundation of our system of public education since John Adams declared in 1785, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Here are four statements of principle that define the parameters of this debate:

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, an important book published last autumn, education historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire characterize the belief system of the promoters of marketplace school choice:  “An unquestioned faith in markets is at the very heart of the push to unmake public education. Just as consumers choose from a vast array of products in the marketplace… parents should be able to choose where and how their children are educated… Give consumers the freedom to choose where and how to educate their children and the woes of our public schools will finally be fixed…. ‘Bad’ schools will be forced to close as consumers flee them, while ‘good’ schools will proliferate to meet burgeoning consumer demand… Unlike the public education bureaucracy, the market is seen as a paragon of efficiency.  Rather than being directed by some central power, individuals in the market need only seek their own benefit… In this view, markets are a form of natural democracy—one in which individuals express their preferences and those preferences shape outcomes.  Consumers vote with dollars, and the aggregation of those individual votes produces a collective decision.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 15-17)

What’s wrong with this idea? The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber warns that while individuals may serve the needs of their own children, society loses, and the children of the least powerful parents lose the most: “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)

Barber clarifies how the ideology of school privatization compromises the basic values that have historically been our society’s bedrock: “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)

In Schoolhouse Burning, another important book published last autumn, Derek Black more precisely defines what public education was imagined to accomplish: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)

Groups like Americans for Prosperity, EdChoice, ExcelinEd, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Federation for Children, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools should not be determining the fate of public education in America.  The 50 state constitutions give citizens the responsibility, through the democratic process, of ensuring that their legislators provide public schools which are adequate, equitable, and accessible for all.

Why Is Cardona’s Department of Education Partnering with an Astroturf Parent Organization?

Parents whose children are enrolled in public schools across in the United States have traditionally joined the PTA—affiliated with the national Parent Teacher Association—or an unaffiliated PTO—a Parent Teacher Organization, but few would have had the opportunity to join the National Parents Union.  PTAs and PTOs embody the principle that parents and teachers are together responsible for the well-being of the school’s students.

On first glance, you might notice how the name of the National Parents Union is different from the names of the more traditional parents’ organizations. First, “teachers” are not named as collaborators. And the National Parents Union is called a “union.” Those two features of the organization’s name might make you suspicious that this is some sort of parents’ group against teachers unions. And, it seems you might be correct.

The National Parents Union is an Astroturf organization founded in 2020. Astroturf organizations pretend to represent the grassroots, but instead they advocate for the interests of their big funders. It is helpful to know who these groups are, so that you can keep straight about what they stand for and who they really represent.

Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has thoroughly researched and exposed the abuses by Astroturf organizations in the past, most notably the New York dark money group, Families for Excellent Schools Action, which was fined $426,466 by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for violating Massachusetts’ campaign laws when it invested $15 million in 2016 to try to pass a referendum to raise the cap on the authorization of charter schools in that state. The referendum failed and later Families for Excellent Schools shut down.

More recently Cunningham has turned his sights on a relatively new group, the National Parents Union. In May of last year, when the National Parents Union was only a few months old, Cunningham explained: “One unsurprising characteristic of the Walton family sponsored National Parents Union is that it has so few parent members… Searches on Twitter, organization websites, and IRS Form 990 tax returns suggested various dominant functions I could use to characterize sixty-four of the seventy organizations (affiliated with the NPU).  I found that there are fifteen charter school organizations (like KIPP and Rocketship) and nine charter school trade organizations (like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). That makes 24 of the 64 ‘parent organizations.’  There were another fifteen organizations I categorized as education options/choice, groups which present as helping navigate among different schools but which are designed to funnel students to charter schools. That makes 39 organizations tied into the charter schools industry. There are nineteen organizations I identified as ‘civic’ and some I could further identify, for instance civic/Latinx, civic/civil rights, civic/autism, etc. Within the civic groups that could be identified, there were four I identified as civic/parents. The parent groups are Connecticut Parents Union, Minnesota Parents Union, New Jersey Youth Justice Initiative… and Massachusetts Parents United. Of the four parent groups, Massachusetts Parents United is emblematic since its CEO Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo is also the CEO of National Parents Union.  But MPU is not a grassroots parents organization either.  It is a privatization front underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation.”

In another recent post, Cunningham details exactly who is funding this supposed grassroots parents’ organization: “National Parents Union has received funding from the following oligarchs through their own foundations or philanthropies they contribute to and control: the Walton family, Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Dell, the late Eli Broad, Reed Hoffman, John Arnold, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Charles Koch.”

So, wonders Cunningham in a post he published on Diane Ravitch’s blog, why has U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona brought the National Parents Union—as the representative of the point of view of parents—into the Department’s new School Climate and Discipline Work Group and as an advisor to the Department’s Office of Parent Engagement and Communication?

Cunningham examines uncritical coverage of Cardona’s move by reporter Linda Jacobson in The 74, a news website with some of the very same funders as the National Parents Union. After reading Jacobson’s article, Cunningham wonders whether Secretary Cardona and his staff are naive enough to believe they are inviting collaboration from a real grassroots parents’ group, or whether Education Department staff are knowingly inviting the input of billionaire corporate accountability school reformers: “The pro-privatization education blog, The 74, recently published ‘To Rebuild Trust with Families, Ed. Dept. Seeks Input from Outspoken Parents Group.’ The story purports to be about how Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona ‘seeks’ the advice of parents and thus turns to the National Parents Union. But the National Parents Union isn’t about parents; it’s a front for oligarchs with ‘parents’ in the name. So who got suckered here, Secretary Cardona or readers of The 74?”

Cunningham concludes: “National Parents Union is a sucker’s game.”

What Does Educational Equity Mean?

Monday, May 17, 2021, marked the 67th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which banned racially segregated schools and unequal access to education. Over more than two decades, NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall built up a series of court precedents leading to the 1954 decision in Brown, which declared that educational opportunity, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” However, two-thirds of a century later in most places in the United States racial separation and inequity remain the conditions of our children at school.

Among advocates for educational equality, there has, for decades, been an ongoing conversation about the definition of equity. Iris Rotberg, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, recently published a column in which she quotes Thurgood Marshall’s definition all those years ago:  “We sit… not to resolve disputes over educational theory but to enforce our Constitution… I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Rotberg interprets Marshall’s words: “The government’s responsibility, therefore, is to ensure equal opportunity, not to debate its link to student achievement.”  She is interpreting Marshall’s definition of justice to mean equality of educational inputs and not a comparison of test score outcomes.  She is advocating that states be held accountable for equalizing resources and that we reject what has come to be known as outcomes-based school reform which punishes schools and school districts where scores don’t quickly rise.

In its Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Schott Foundation for Public Education called America’s attention to disparities in educational inputs by demanding that we stop judging schools exclusively by standardized-test-score achievement gaps and instead try to conceptualize and measure opportunity gaps faced by the children across many parts of our country.  This spring, for example President Biden has recently taken the same approach, asking us to recognize opportunity gaps by including a provision in the American Rescue Plan, the recent COVID relief bill, to expand the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under six-years-old), and make it fully refundable for families too poor to pay enough taxes to benefit from this measure.  Biden has been concerned that until now the current Child Tax Credit has left out the poorest children in this country. Their extreme poverty has created an opportunity gap that affects every aspect of their lives.

In education policy itself, equality of school inputs is a matter of school funding. Congress addressed this issue back in 1965 by establishing Title I to provide federal compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, but that program has long suffered from underfunding.

And during 2018 and 2019, in huge statewide Red4Ed walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma and big strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago, schoolteachers helped us better grasp opportunity gaps. They protested that their students were suffering from shortages of school social workers, guidance counselors and school nurses; overcrowded classes of 40 students; lack of enriched curriculum and art and music; and shuttered school libraries.

Historically, as Thurgood Marshall recognized, unequal school funding has also accompanied school segregation as a driver of educational inequality.  When Reconstruction collapsed in 1868, legislators in the states of the former Confederacy did everything they could to segregate schools and drive money to the schools serving white children. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, in post-Reconstruction constitutional conventions across the South, legislators not only segregated schools but also introduced the idea of making school funding reliant on local property taxes: “Make school funding dependent primarily on local tax revenues and give local officials more discretion in operating their schools. This would do two important things.  First, it would make vast inequality possible. Wealthy areas could spend as much on education as they wanted, and poor areas—areas heavily populated by blacks—would remain, well, poor. Second, wealthy white communities would effectively be relieved of the duty of supporting black education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 145)

In her recent column, Rotberg rejects the other failed education “reform” strategy lawmakers have been trying out for several decades: look at student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and then sanction schools and school districts that can’t quickly raise test scores: “(T)he United States focused on initiatives that had no direct link to equity, but that reformers hoped would raise student test scores and reduce the achievement gap—(in Marshall’s words) ‘what the children are able to do with what they receive.’… The second approach did little overall to make the country more equitable or to strengthen academic attainment.”  She is talking about outcomes-based accountability: ” ‘fixing’ the education system and rewarding or punishing teachers for students’ test scores… Three main reforms have dominated the education system and education policy research: charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools; holding teachers accountable for student performance; and curriculum standards to guide instruction. The results show little evidence that the reforms led to a more equitable society or to national gains in student achievement.”

Ohio provides a perfect case study for Rotberg’s argument for the state’s provision of adequate and equitable public school resources. In recent decades, Ohio education policy has relied heavily on the test-and-punish philosophy that Rotberg bluntly rejects. Ohio ranks schools by their test scores and brands the poorest districts with “F”s and wealthy exurban schools with “A”s on the school report cards the state issues. Ohio has rapidly expanded private school tuition vouchers and the state has expanded charter schools, but Ohio’s mechanism for school privatization reduces fiscal resources in the public school districts serving poor children. The state locates EdChoice voucher qualification only in school districts with Title I schools and deducts the vouchers right out of the local school budgets. And it permits the location of privatized charter schools only in the school districts where standardized test score outcomes are low. The state has seized three of the states poorest school districts and imposed emergency overseers without any observable school improvement.

While all this was going on, Ohio entirely abandoned the state’s constitutional mandate requiring adequate and equitable school funding. This month the Legislature is considering a new Fair School Funding Plan as part of the budget which must be passed by June 30. Experts have regularly pointed out the collapse of the state’s school funding formula—leaving school districts overly reliant on unequal local property taxes.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter explained: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a (working) school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.” Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton adds: “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

In Ohio and across many states, it is a good time to reconsider Justice Thurgood Marshall’s definition of equity: “I believe the question of education quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks at what the state provides its children, not what the children are able to do with what they receive.”

Bill and Melinda Will Divorce, but the Gates Brand of Venture Philanthropy Will Continue On

A month ago, this blog suggested that hubris is at the heart of today’s billionaire philanthropy but noted that Bill and Melinda Gates have so much power that, despite the tragic blindness of their privilege, there will be no tragic fall and no consequences. Now, with Bill and Melinda announcing their divorce, we continue to learn even more about how privilege in an unequal America insulates the super-rich who have the power to drive the public policy that shapes the institutions on which we all depend

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss seized the occasion of the Gates’ pending divorce as an opportunity to review the ways Bill and Melinda have used their influence and their money to shape public education policy at the federal level and across the states: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on numerous education projects—such as creating small high schools, writing and implementing the Common Core State Standards, evaluating teachers by standardized test scores—and the couple has had enormous influence on what happened in classrooms across the country. Their philanthropy, especially in the school reform area, has been at the center of a national debate about whether it serves democracy when wealthy people can use their own money to drive public policy and fund their pet education projects. The foundation’s financial backing of some of the controversial priorities of the Obama administration’s Education Department put the couple at the center of this national conversation. Critics have said that many of the foundation’s key education projects have harmed public schools because they were unworkable from the start and consumed resources that could have been better spent.”

Strauss doesn’t even mention some of the details. For example, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan wanted to encourage states to apply for Race to the Top Grants back in 2009—grants for which states could qualify only if they would agree to adopt Duncan’s (and the Gates’) favorite policies like removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools, adopting state standards, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave each state that wanted to apply $250,000 to hire experienced grant writers to prepare their federal applications.

And Tampa’s WFLA, News Channel 8 reported two weeks ago about the long term impact for Florida’ Hillsborough County School District of a 2009 Gates project to evaluate teachers by students’ standardized test scores and then provide bonuses to the best teachers. The Gates Foundation gave up on the experiment midstream: “The Hillsborough County Public School system is in a budget crisis. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has given the school board just days to come up with a financial plan to fund an emergency reserve account…. to be used in case of emergency or disaster. Some school board members estimate the account will be more than $100 million dollars short this year. Now, some school board members are blaming a 2009 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for putting the county on a path to have a budget shortfall… When the grant was announced, the county understood they would receive 100 million dollars if the county put up matching funds. When the grant expired in 2016, the Gates Foundation had only provided 80 million dollars, the county put up 124 million dollars… After further review, the foundation said they found bonuses to teachers didn’t improve the quality of education for students.”

Strauss explains further that Bill and Melinda Gates have been candid about admitting mistakes which had repercussions for children, teachers and public school budgets but which had no real consequences for the Gates themselves: “In 2013, Bill Gates said, ‘It would be great if our education stuff worked. But that we won’t know for probably a decade.’ It didn’t take 10 years for them and their foundation to acknowledge that key education investments didn’t turn out as well as they hoped. In the Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, Melinda Gates said, ‘The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though.  Just the opposite.’  That same annual letter had a rather remarkable statement from Melinda Gates about the role of the wealthy in education policy…. ‘We certainly understand why so many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.'”

Except that Melinda’s description isn’t how Gates’ philanthropy has worked. The Gates Foundation has regularly been the generator of the ideas.

Back in June of 2003, for example, their foundation put out a press release: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $22 million investment in the NewSchools Venture Fund to increase the number of high-quality charter schools around the country by creating systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.” Certainly this was a Gates Foundation-initiated project, and we know how those nonprofit chains of charter schools have morphed today in too many instances into giant for-profit CMOs.

Despite their pending divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates both plan to continue as co-chairs and trustees of the Foundation. Is there a chance that their pending divorce will cause Bill and Melinda to reconsider the danger of their own power?  It doesn’t look like it. In a NY Times interview last December, Melinda Gates acknowledged that venture philanthropy does shape policy these days, but Melinda seems to have convinced herself that the partnership of philanthropy and government is a form of collaboration. What she misses is that Gates’ investments have regularly involved the wielding of vast sums of money to purchase public policy. The reporter asks: “Do you accept the line of criticism that says big philanthropy has too much power right now, that individuals, not governments, are making decisions that shape educational policy and public policy?”

Melinda answers: “I think that’s a critique that is well worth listening to and looking at. In our philanthropic work, there isn’t a single thing that we don’t work on in partnership with governments. Because at the end of the day, it is governments that scale things up and that can help the most people. There is a healthy ecosystem that needs to exist between government, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society… You know, if Bill and I had had more decision-making authority in education, maybe we would’ve gotten farther in the United States. But we haven’t. Some of the things that we piloted or tried got rejected, or didn’t work, and I think there’s a very healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers’ unions and mayors and city councils that make those education decisions. I wish the U.S. school system was better for all kids.”

Notice that Melinda Gates seems to consider the role of government as merely a check on the education reforms the Gates Foundation chooses to launch. Although, a long time ago, organizations used to apply for grants from philanthropies to meet specific needs envisioned by the applicants, today venture philanthropists themselves imagine how they want to disrupt existing institutions—designing, starting up, implementing, and marketing new ideas. Then the foundation’s staff evaluates the projects according to the foundation’s specifications to see whether the foundation will choose to continue the projects. Melinda Gates is correct that citizens working with government have sometimes stopped a Gates project, but in education, for example, the process of protecting public schools from damage has sometimes taken years.

Melinda Gates talks around the problem but fails to recognize how her vision and experience—from a  perch that the NY Times’ Nicholas Kulish, Rebecca R. Ruiz and David Gelles describe as the Gates’ 66,000-square-foot home on the shore of Lake Washington, with a foundation staff of 1,600—may leave her unable to grasp the realities where all the rest of us live. The reporters characterize the foundation as working on an ever growing and massive to-do list and describe policy wrestling between Bill and Melinda, who both have personal priorities. Maybe as Bill and Melinda Gates divorce, they will pursue different priorities and give up on corporate, accountability-based school reform. We can only hope!

But it appears that not much has changed in the eleven years since, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explored venture philanthropy’s role in launching corporate school reform: “Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do. They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals… There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people… These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 197-201)