Despite ECOT’s Death, Ohio’s Unscrupulous Charter Schools Gobble Up State and Local Tax Dollars

Despite the death last January of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s charter schools continue to suck money out of their host school districts, and, at the same time, many fail to educate the students for whom they are responsible.

The giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was finally shut down after the state tried to collect $80 million the Department of Education calculated ECOT had overcharged taxpayers for the past two school years alone.  ECOT, which had been billing taxpayers (on a per-pupil basis) for thousands of phantom students the school had enrolled but who were not logging on to use the school’s curriculum, couldn’t pay the bill when the state demanded that the school return the money.  ECOT descended into bankruptcy.

Because of the way Ohio funds charter schools, not only the state but also the local school district loses money when a student leaves for a charter school. In Ohio the money follows the child to the charter right out of the general fund of the school district in which the child resides.  Many districts lose more money to charters than they receive in state aid.  As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports: “Ohio does not directly fund charter schools, instead subtracting the money from individual districts based on where a charter student lives. Traditional public school officials and advocates have complained for years that the system also diverts local tax revenue to charter schools along with state funding. Siegel quotes Columbus, Ohio school board member Dominic Paretti, who says ECOT gobbled up enough funds to have used up several local school property tax levies: “If you add up all that local share of dollars that has flowed to ECOT from Columbus schools’ taxpayers, it would erase the need for us to possibly ever have to go to those levies.”

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow remains in the news because it will take years to wind up its affairs. Also Ohio waits for a final decision by the Ohio Supreme Court on the matter of ECOT’s final legal appeal to stay in business. In the meantime, Innovation Ohio has now calculated the total amount ECOT sucked out of  local school districts’ funds between 2012 and 2018.  During the six year period, for example, Columbus lost $62,897,188 to ECOT; Cleveland lost $39,405,981; and Dayton lost $20,200,830. Over the six year period, ECOT drained a total of $590,954,999 from Ohio’s school districts.

Many people push back with the argument that the money should follow the child; after all, the school district no longer has to pay expenses for that student. In a new report published by In the Public Interest, however, political economist Gordon Lafer dissects the stranded costs the child’s public school district must continue to cover: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district.” “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

The Ohio State Board of Education, which has been increasingly proactive, voted last Tuesday to toughen the rules that regulate another of the state’s notorious charter school sectors: the Dropout Recovery Charter Schools—schools which have been held to far more lax academic standards than traditional public schools or other charter schools because they are said to serve students in trouble.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The state school board on Tuesday passed higher standards for… the nearly 90 dropout intervention charter schools statewide, as Ohio continues refining how to measure schools that help the most struggling and at-risk students earn diplomas. The tougher rules—covering graduation rates and which schools qualify for the easier dropout school report cards—continue Ohio’s gradual crackdown on charter schools that have skated by for years despite poor results.”  Until last week, the state required Dropout Recovery Charters to graduate 8 percent of their students in 4 years; as of last week, the State Board will now require 25 percent to graduate in 4 years, or the school will be held accountable.

To qualify as a dropout recovery school, the old rules said that a school must enroll at least 50 percent of its students who are far behind their peers and in danger of dropping out. Last week the State Board changed the rules to demand that Dropout Recovery Charters will need to prove (in 2019-2020) that 65 percent of their students are in real academic danger and need special services. In 2020-2021 that requirement will increase to 75 percent of the school’s students.  In other words, these schools won’t be able to pad their graduation rates and average test scores with students who don’t fit their mission as schools for “dropout recovery.”

Schools that fail to comply with the new standards will be in danger of closure, and their sponsors’ ratings will also be at risk.  Is there an urgent need for such reforms?  O’Donnell explains: “Invictus High School of Cleveland barely graduates 12 percent of its students in four years.” And yet there have been no penalties, and public funding (combined state and local dollars) have flowed freely to this deplorable school until now.

In what has become a series of scathing columns, retired editorial page director for the Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes the legislative corruption that has fed the growth of a poorly regulated charter school sector in an all-Red state without any kind of checks and balances: “Legislators in Ohio have long stood accused of serving not their constituents, but the people who fund their campaigns. But in the last eight years, House Republicans seem to have reached new lows in their ethical depravity… In April, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned in the wake of revelations he may be the target of an FBI probe… including ties involving the insidious payday lending industry. Before that, the House was ruled by Bill Batchelder, who spent four years protecting some of the most unprincipled bottom-feeders ever to prowl Statehouse corridors. Then, lo and behold, some of those who received favorable treatment, including the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, became clients of the Batchelder lobbying firm… ECOT was once the nation’s largest online charter school.  And arguably its worst… From 2001 to 2016, ECOT raked in more than $1 billion in taxpayer money.  In return, ECOT founder Bill Lager and his flunkies contributed more than $2 million to campaigns of Ohio politicians, a huge majority of that going to Republicans.  That money seemed to buy protection from a legislature that required only token policing of online charters.”

What’s clear in Ohio is that cleaning up this mess will require a long time and some very significant political change.

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Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.
  • “High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.

Following Teachers’ Protests this Spring, NY Times Continues Coverage of School Funding Woes

What happened to North Carolina over the last decade?  North Carolina used to be the state highlighted for quality education in the South, but then it flipped all-Red. The legislature became all-Republican in 2010, and in 2012, voters elected Pat McCrory, a conservative businessman as Governor—creating an all-Red trifecta state lacking checks and balances until McCrory was defeated in 2016.

In a report last December for the North Carolina Justice Center, Kris Nordstrom describes the destruction of public education that followed the state’s political transformation: “North Carolina was once viewed as the shining light for progressive education policy in the South.  State leaders—often with the support of the business community—were able to develop bipartisan support for public schools, and implement popular, effective  programs… The state made great strides to professionalizing the teaching force, bringing the state’s average teacher salary nearly up to the national average…. In addition, North Carolina focused on developing and retaining its teaching force by investing in teacher scholarship programs and mentoring programs for beginning teachers… Unfortunately, over the past seven years, North Carolina has lost its reputation for educational excellence. Since the Republican takeover of the General Assembly following the 2010 election, the state has become more infamous for bitter partisanship and divisiveness, as reflected in education policies. Lawmakers have passed a number of controversial, partisan measures, rapidly expanding school choice, cutting school resources, and eliminating job protections for teachers… One commonality of nearly all of the initiatives… is that they were folded into omnibus budget bills, rather than moved through a deliberative committee process.”

In a fine story in Wednesday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein describes what the collapse of financial support for public schools in North Carolina has meant for one poor, rural school in eastern North Carolina’s Greene County and for third-grade teacher, Keshia Speight: “Everyone at West Greene knows Mrs. Speight is special. She won teacher of the year in just her second year on the job. She’s 45 and earns about $37,000 a year. That’s more than $21,000 less than the national average and $12,000 less than the state average. She has $25,000 of student debt. The worksheets (used by her students)… have often been printed by Mrs. Speight on the printer she bought for the classroom using her own money. The cartridges are always running out, and Mrs. Speight buys those, too, at $30 a pop. She buys pencils and educational games and other supplies—more than she can keep track of. In some years, she said, she spends as much as $1,000 of her own money.”

The shortage of money has cut deeper than classroom supply budgets: “There used to be a full-time library assistant here to help students select books and check them out. The assistant now works half time. The district once paid for teachers to participate in National Board Certification, a prestigious professional development program, but no longer has the money to do so. An after-school tutoring program recently ended when the grant that was paying for it ran out.”

The school district has invested in computers and tablets over the years, and Mrs. Speight believes technology is important, as many of her students entirely lack access to the internet at home. But Superintendent Patrick Miller is torn by impossible choices—teachers or technology: “Principals often tell Patrick Miller… that they’d rather hire educators than purchase new technology. There isn’t always money to do both. North Carolina schools get most of their money from the state. They have less of it now, adjusted for inflation than they did before the recession, because of tax cuts and rising costs for health care and pensions. Wealthy areas have been able to make up for the lost funds through property taxes. Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, supplements state school money with an additional $4,852 per student. Greene County supplements it with just $736 per student.”

Goldstein’s fine article on Greene County Schools’ funding shortage followed an earlier NY Times analysis, Robert Gebeloff’s background piece at The Upshot, on the state of school funding across the states: “(W)hile the protests are spreading this year, the underlying conflict between public school employees and policymakers has roots in decisions made during the last recession, when states and local districts short of cash curtailed education spending for the first time in decades. This had a pronounced effect on school staffing, with layoffs hitting many states. Districts cut support staff as well as regular classroom teachers.  In North Carolina, the number of teachers is down 5 percent since peaking in 2009, while the number of teaching assistants is 28 percent lower. And teacher pay stagnated nonetheless… For a system that had experienced nothing but spending growth for a quarter century, the past few years have been a major shock. K-12 spending per pupil rose 26 out of 29 years before 2010, only to tumble three consecutive years at the beginning of this decade.”

Gebeloff adds: “Then came a one-two punch to the growth in education spending: The recession worsened financial problems already widespread in many states, and voters began electing conservative governors and legislatures that promised to rein in budget woes with spending cuts. Almost every state reduced education spending during the recession. But as the national economy recovered, education spending did not return to the historical pattern of steady growth across all states. By 2016, more than half of states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending per pupil to 2009 levels, but the same was true in only 5 of 22 states controlled by Republicans. Some red states have seen slower growth in state and local revenues… The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… notes that seven states with school funding controversies—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma—cut taxes in recent years… North Carolina teachers once ranked 19th in the nation in pay, but now rank 37th.”

A final note: If you question why public education spending rose consistently over the years prior to the Great Recession, please consult Richard Rothstein’s research for the Economic Policy Institute, research showing that 38 percent of added funding over these years was devoted to services for severely handicapped children who began to be served in the public schools after 1975, with the passage by Congress of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Mike Rose: How “School Failure” Narrative of “A Nation at Risk” Has Undermined Public Schools

I can’t bring myself to think of Naomi Klein in the same category as Mike Rose, one of my favorite education writers. They are important but very different writers.  There is one similarity, however.  In 2007, Klein responded to Hurricane Katrina and other natural catastrophes around the world with the publication of a blockbuster, thesis-driven social science analysis, The Shock Doctrine, in which she highlighted the swift takeover of New Orleans’ public schools after the hurricane as the very definition of her idea that a crisis from a natural disaster will often be grabbed as an opportunity by business interests looking for a profit. And this week, Rose explains in a new blog post, that his extraordinary book, Possible Lives, was his own response to a “shock doctrine” crisis created by the inflammatory language of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Klein explains “the shock doctrine” in the context of what can happen to a public school system when the interests of privatization are pitched as the best response to a catastrophe: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ schools system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans’ teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.”  (The Shock Doctrine, p. 5)

One person who absolutely absorbed the capitalist possibilities of Hurricane Katrina was a prominent policy maker, who had by, 2010 when he spoke out about it, become our U.S. Education Technocrat-in-Chief, Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community….” A crisis. A disaster. A time ripe for throwing it all away and trying something new.

In his new blog post—to mark the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Mike Rose explains that he undertook Possible Lives as a response to A Nation at Risk—to the exaggerated, urgent, fevered language in the Reagan era report’s introduction: “Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures.”  Rose continues: “(O)ne hard lesson learned from A Nation at Risk is that the way problems are represented has major consequences.  This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from A Nation at Risk.”

Rose pulls out from the opening two paragraphs of A Nation at Risk the language he describes as framed precisely to generate a sense of educational catastrophe.  He quotes from the opening paragraphs::

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves… We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

What has followed for 35 years now Rose describes as a response to an existential education crisis created entirely by language carefully chosen and narratively framed to motivate our society to do something radical.  Our response? Test and punish via No Child Left Behind. Grading schools and teachers by their students’ aggregate test scores, including A-F grades imposed by states on their school districts and individual schools. Closing so-called failing schools. And all sorts of school privatization via charter schools, and virtual schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account neo-vouchers—all to give children an escape from their so-called “failing” public schools.

Rose responded to A Nation at Risk‘s manipulation of language and public opinion—intended to create the impression that U.S. public schools were in crisis—by traveling the country for four years, visiting America’s best classrooms, and narrating the promising story of America’s public schools and their teachers. Possible Lives was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. It is one of the most inspiring books ever written about what actually happens inside our public school classrooms.  The fact that classrooms are places most of the public never visits likely contributes to people’s manipulation through crisis-driven rhetoric. While A Nation at Risk turned the public attention to an obsessive examination of outcomes based on standardized test scores and technocratic fixes—stuff that can be easily reported and statistically processed, Rose takes readers right into classrooms to watch how teachers respond to children, how they challenge adolescents to puzzle out and reason, how they design projects that fascinate students and pique their imaginations.

Looking back at A Nation at Risk, Rose summarizes the difference between the language of its introduction—designed to terrify us all if we don’t do something quick—and the rest of the report: “So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Los of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable aims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote ‘life-long learning,’ and to assure ‘a solid high-school education’ for all.  But few people read the full report.  What was picked up was the dire language of the opening; and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the (more promising) recommendations of the report.”

Rose references a recent A Nation of Risk 35th anniversary story by Anya Kamenetz on National Public Radio: “Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of A Nation at Risk and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education ‘on the front page.’ They succeeded big time.”

Rose pulls out his own warning from Possible Lives about this kind of language: “It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture (our institution of public education) is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction.  So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools….”  Prophetic words from a book written in 1995 and reprinted in 2006.

Rose concludes his recent blog post with this warning: “One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy?”

I’ll add that in Possible Lives and the rest of his fine books, Rose has not only used language with precision, but also with a sense of compassion and human understanding. He shows us what happens at school—for children and adolescents and their teachers—without emphasizing the preoccupation of the school reformers—the technocratic measures and incentives and ratings that permeate our society and that always situate our schools in perpetual data-driven competition.

Please read Mike Rose’s new blog post.  And consider adding Possible Lives to your reading this summer.

Hopeful Signs That, Just Maybe, The Times They Are A-Changin’

In Detroit…

Rochelle Riley’s column on Sunday in the Detroit Free Press begins this way: “Something miraculous happened at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber. For the first time that I can recall, people in charge of changing people’s lives spent most of their time focused on those in the state who need their help the most.”

Detroit’s school superintendent, Dr. Nikolai Vitti, finishing his first year on the job, made the biggest waves—by telling the truth.

Remember that in these accountability-driven times, when school superintendents pretty much have to promise to raise test scores as a requirement for getting hired, these people have to pretend they can turn a district around on a dime. When they inevitably fail, they are fired. Three years is a long time for such people to last.

And remember the history of Detroit’s schools, until 2017 under years of state takeover—run by a state government dominated by DeVos conservatives. For years Governor Rick Snyder had been able to impose emergency fiscal managers on the school district—people responsible for cutting costs but not required to be educators. Until the beginning of 2017, when an elected school board was sworn in and its members set out to find a superintendent of their own choosing.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti was their choice, and last week at the end of his first year on the job, at a conference sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, he confronted the dogma of Michigan’s power establishment—Rick Snyder, the DeVos family and all the rest.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reprinted part of Dr. Vitti’s remarks: “People often ask me, ‘What were you most surprised about when you took the job and started to work in the system?’  And I often say I was shocked, horrified at the lack of systems and processes for traditional public education. Traditional public education has always been, and hopefully will always be, the vehicle for social change, for social justice, for equal opportunity in this country.  And walking into the system and seeing a lack of systems and processes is a testament to the lack of belief in what children can do.”

Vitti continued: “And there is a racist element to what has happened. Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens.  When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals, and it’s not about one individual, but individuals that had no track record of education reform, no local governance structure to address immediate concerns and issues by the community through an elected board… and year after year of low performance, a lack of growth, drop in enrollment, facilities that are not kept up, that would never ever happen in any white suburban district in this country.  And that is a testament of race.  Because this country would not allow that. We see signs of that in Flint and we saw signs of that in New Orleans after the flood and we have multiple examples of this.”

Vitti decried any lack of real commitment to equity: “And there is oftentimes very strong rhetoric about equal opportunity in public education.  It’s time to actually support it financially.  But even with the right policy, even when we talk about “we need accountability”….  I often say to people, when you inject the accountability, what are you doing for support?  Because for best practices for every unit of accountability, there has to be a corresponding unit of support.  And for schools that are deeply struggling basically because of poverty, there needs to be extra degrees of support. And that’s what we haven’t figured out.”

Vitti’s comments were part of a panel that included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other community leaders. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, who was the panel’s moderator, asked Vitti to speak from the point of view of an 8-year-old third-grader and to tell the audience what the third-grader would say about his school. She reports Vitti’s answer: “I want the same thing that your child wants… I may not have your privilege. I may not have the color of your skin.  I may live in a different ZIP code. But I want the exact same thing you want for your son, your daughter, your grandchild, your niece, your nephew. That’s what I want.”

In Richmond…

In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reports on another sign of evolving attitudes. Richmond’s new school superintendent, originally an acolyte of Michelle Rhee and her use of test scores to evaluate teachers, has not taken to Richmond the IMPACT teacher evaluation system he helped develop for use in the schools of Washington, D.C.  Jason Kamras became superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools late in 2017.

Strauss describes how IMPACT worked in Washington, D.C. when Kamras was serving under Rhee: “Kamras helped create and implement an assessment system for teachers and other adults in D.C. schools that was on the leading edge of a movement to evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores. Those evaluations were used to reward and punish educators. Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of the D.C. school system, was a leader of that movement, and the teacher evaluation system they developed, called IMPACT, was a national model embraced in part by other states. Launched in 2009, IMPACT’s key evaluative elements were student standardized test scores and the results of classroom observations from ‘master’ teachers… For several years, all adults in a school building were graded in part on student test scores, including the custodial staff and the people who worked in the lunch room, the idea being that everybody contributed to the school’s climate.  IMPACT used methods of data analysis that were not considered especially reliable or valid for high-stakes purposes, but supporters of test-based school reform didn’t seem to mind.”

You may remember that in 2014, the American Statistical Association rejected Value-Added-Measures (VAM) evaluations of teachers by their students’ scores.  The ASA declared: “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes. VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects—positive or negative—attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.  Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used….”  And in 2015, the American Educational Research Association warned strongly against over-relying on students’ standardized test scores for evaluating their teachers.

It is one thing for psychometric experts to caution about the use of students’ test scores for judging teachers, and quite another for a practicing school district leader who helped design IMPACT for Washington, D.C.’s schools to reject such a system when he later becomes a school superintendent. Valerie Strauss quotes what Kamras recently said when he was asked about whether he would bring the system he helped design for Washington, D.C. to his new school district in Richmond: “My thinking on this has evolved… The idea of high expectations for everyone—myself, teachers, students—is certainly something that I believe in and something that will be a part of my leadership here… But how that looks concretely is something we need to explore with our educators, students and families.  What I can say for certain: I am not bringing IMPACT to Richmond.”