“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” —John Adams

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:

“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)

Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California.  A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.”  Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”

Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”

In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education.  Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.  Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming.  To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system.  Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,  pp. 279-280)

What makes the preservation of public education so important?  Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “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)

Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.  
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns a turnaround strategy.
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score proficient on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”

We Need a Massive National Campaign to Protest School Privatization

Fighting the privatization of public education feels like an overwhelming challenge. Partly, because all kinds of vouchers (plain old vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts) are set up and funded by state legislatures, and charter schools are also set up and controlled (and too frequently poorly regulated) by state law,  the battle is fragmented from place to place.  Except for the money allocated every year out of the federal Charter Schools Program, begun in 1994 during the Clinton administration, school privatization is not driven by federal policy that affects all of us across the United States.  What happens in California and Arizona doesn’t have any effect on the public schools of Ohio where I live.  So why should I care about what happens in another state?

Then there is the question of why the problem of school privatization matters so much. While much of the research and advocacy materials about the impact of school privatization inspects the quality of the privatized school alternatives, I  believe that what ought to concern us most is the amount of money being driven out of the public schools that serve the mass of our children. The evidence shows that school funding in many states has fallen very significantly since the Great Recession in 2008 and that school privatization has contributed to that problem.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black,traces, for example, how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during and after the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase. In 2013-14, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter.  Some went deeper in the red.  Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state… All told, charter schools received $7,189 per pupil in state funding.  Public school districts received less than half that amount.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

Once voucher and charter programs are well established, their proponents across the state legislatures ensure that they grow and expand.  Earlier this month, Steve Dyer showed how Ohio’s charter school program has continued to grow since Derek Black researched his book: “According to the latest Charter School funding report form the Ohio Department of Education, we are set to spend $999.7 million” on charter schools this year. And it isn’t because more students are attending charter schools: “It’s because Ohio politicians have continued bumping up the per pupil amounts flowing to charters. So now kids in Ohio charters, on average, get nearly $8,500  per pupil in state aid—about double what that same kid would receive in a local public school. As I’ve recounted for more than a decade, because of the way we fund charters (through the local school district deduction), that means that local property taxes have to subsidize charter school kids. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in Rocket Science to understand that, if you’re removing $8,500 in state aid from a district for a kid the district was only getting about half of that from the state to educate, the difference has to come from somewhere. This year, that subsidy is slated to be $148 million.  And in some districts, it’s really high. Like in Columbus where $62 million in local revenue has to subsidize the state funding deduction for charters.”

Three major reports published in the past two months confirm that when states set up private school tuition voucher programs and charter school programs, these privatized alternatives compete with public schools for dollars from state budgets.

  • In a February report for In the Public Interest, political economist Gordon Lafer documents that, “California is overpaying for online charter schools that are failing students.”  Online charters are a rapidly growing education sector in California: “In 2018-19, nearly 175,000 California students were enrolled in nonclassroom-based charter schools, representing 27 percent of all charter school students in the state… In 2014, just 18 percent of newly approved charter schools were nonclassroom-based; by 2019 that figure had reached 43 percent.  But this sector has also been plagued with repeated scandals and poor educational performance.”  Despite the passage of new regulation to prevent abuses: “Following a new stet of scandals that saw one of the largest charter school chains charged with defrauding the state of nearly $50 million, legislators imposed a two-year moratorium on authorizing new nonclassroom-based charter schools…. The moratorium expires at the end of 2021.”  Here is the primary problem identified in Lafer’s report: “It is common sense that the cost of operating an online charter school must be less than that of running a brick-and-mortar school. Yet California’s online charter schools, with very few exceptions, receive the same dollars per pupil as a physically existing school with classrooms, buses, a cafeteria, and maintenance and security staff. To the extent that funding for online charter schools exceeds the actual cost of operation, the government is wasting many millions of tax dollars that are desperately needed in school districts across the state.”
  • This week, the League of Women Voters of Florida released a shocking report on StepUpforStudents.org, a 20-year-old nonprofit, which has taken over administering all of that state’s voucher programs: “Step Up began with a mission to award vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. It has grown to include vouchers… for students with special needs, students who have been bullied, students who are homeschooled, and students with reading difficulties… Step up for Students was created by venture capitalist John Kirtley in 2002, one year after Governor Jeb Bush’s administration established the first Florida Tax Credit voucher program…. By 2020, Step Up had total net assets of over a half billion dollars… Step Up is one of two Scholarship Funding Organizations authorized to administer five school choice scholarship programs in Florida. Step Up administers 99% of the contributions, while AAA Scholarship Foundation handles the remaining 1%.

Here is how the tax credit program administered by Step UP works: “Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into the General Revenue to operate state government, including public schools.  These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as ‘donations.'”  Step Up not only administers the state’s voucher programs, but it also oversees the programs it administers: “The Florida Department of Education’s Office of School Choice cannot supervise a program of this magnitude. The task of supervising over 1,800 private schools and tracking individual vouchers given to parents is huge and varied. Where students enroll must be verified. Some schools report vouchers for students who are not enrolled. Some vouchers are awarded to students who do not meet the family income requirement for their voucher. In addition, some vouchers allow parents to purchase supplies and services for students. These individual purchases must be tracked. This is where Step Up has stepped in. The Department of Education has outsourced oversight functions to the same private agency that also awards the scholarships.”  The rest of the report lists questionable practices in Step Up’s program compliance monitoring, and explains further how so-called charitable donations in Florida are in this case merely a means of avoiding paying taxes.

  • Finally there is Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, the mammoth report from the Network for Public Education.  While only Arizona law permits the operation of for-profit charter schools, all the other states with charter school enabling legislation require the schools to be nonprofits. “However, those who wish to profit from charter schools have developed creative workarounds to evade state and federal laws. The for-profit management organization, commonly referred to as an EMO, finds individuals to create a nonprofit board. That board, which is appointed, not elected, enters into a contract with the for-profit to run the school. Some EMOs manage only one or two schools.  Others manage over ninety… Many operate using a ‘sweeps contract’ in which virtually all revenue, public and private, raised by the charter, is passed to the for-profit management corporation to run the school.  In other cases, the EMO contracts various services out to other for-profit provides, sometimes owned by the owners of the EMO… Whatever money is left over after the bills are paid can accumulate as profit.”

“In total we identified 1,237 charter schools that have contracts with for-profit organizations which control critical or complete operations of the schools, including management, personnel, and/or curriculum… While our research suggests that over 15 percent of all charter schools are operated for profit, the percentage of schools, however, belies the impact.  Based on our match of school names to federal 2018-2019 school year data, over 600,000 students are educated in charters run for profit…. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia presently have charter schools operated by for-profit corporations… Most of the schools are located in four states—Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Arizona… Together, the seven largest national chains (Academica, National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, K12Inc., Charter Schools USA, Pansophic Learning/ACCEL, and Pearson/Connections Academy manage 555 schools.  At least one of the big chains operates in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia.”

In a 2016 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker showed how the expansion of charter schools destabilizes big city school districts: “(C)harters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources. One might characterize this as a parasitic model… one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over resources that must be dedicated to charter schools.”

Baker continues: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Bruce Baker and Derek Black summarize long trends and the recent reports bring the discussion into the immediate present.  The enormous and obvious question is: what can be done to stop the theft of public tax dollars from the public schools that serve the mass of our children and adolescents in the United States?  According to the most recent, September 2019 School Choice in the United States Report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, 47.3 million students were enrolled in public schools, and 3 million students were enrolled in charter schools.  The same report concludes: “In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students (10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools.” Obviously not all of those private school students are paying for their private education with public tax vouchers of various kinds or with tuition tax credits, but clearly the number of students using vouchers pales compared to public school enrollment. Another National Assessment of Education Statistics report updates public school enrollment in 2020: “Total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 47.2 million students to 50.7 million students between fall 2000 and fall 2017.”

Clearly the information is voluminous about the expense of school privatization and about widespread corruption.  I wonder why we who support our nation’s strong and historically significant system of public education are too shy to mount a massive campaign to oppose school privatization. It is understandable that we are reluctant to pit ourselves against our friends and neighbors who use privatized alternatives. But the cost has grown too high. We don’t need to personalize the attack.  Can we not stand against the consumerist marketplace and stand up for the social contract—for the public good—for the public schools that protect our children’s rights by law and ensure that schooling is available in every community across this nation? These programs operate state-by-state, but this is a national problem.

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!

Educational Researchers Demand Cancellation of Spring 2021 Tests: Secretary Cardona Won’t Cancel, but Says In Future He May Reexamine Role of Testing

On Tuesday, in remarks at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona declared that he will not bow to pressure and will instead continue demanding that standardized tests be administrated this year again as usual, despite that COVID-19 has utterly upended another school year.  Last year Betsy DeVos cancelled the tests as schools shut down in March.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported on Wednesday: “A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams…. (H)e said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,’ he said.”

On Monday, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter urgently asking Secretary Cardona to cancel the federally required standardized achievement tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. America’s standardized testing regime was mandated in January of 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act and, in 2015, folded into that law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The federal government set up the testing regime as the foundation of a massive school accountability scheme that ranked and rated America’s public schools and set out to turnaround (mostly through a cascade of sanctions) the poorest performing schools as measured by the tests. It was said that all of America’s youth would score “proficient” by 2014. Today we know that the law did not improve academic achievement overall and that it failed to close academic achievement gaps by race and family economics. In fact damage for students, their schools, and their teachers followed instead.

The letter, sent to Cardona on Monday from a large body of academic researchers in education, directly questions the value of forcing public schools to administer standardized tests this spring as being not only impractical and burdensome for school districts when some students are learning in class and others online, but unlikely to produce complete or reliable data. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beyond Test Scores Project, and authored by Jack Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Lorrie Shephard, Michelle Renee Valladares, and Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A list several pages long contains the names of 544 additional academic researchers.

Here are the concerns the researchers identify about the gathering of data through standardized tests this spring: “First, we strongly urge USED to work with states to approve requests for flexibility as they attempt to limit statewide testing, especially in states where significant numbers of students are still engaged in remote learning and where the state request has identified alternative data sources that can meet state needs.  This recommendation is based on the following: The results of remotely administered tests will not be equivalent to the results of in-person testing. Great variability in participation rates and non-random selection bias make it impossible to compare results across schools or between this year and previous years… (T)here is no way to prevent misinterpretation and misuse of these highly flawed data.”

The researchers also caution about the use of data, once gathered, from any administration of standardized tests this year: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed.  But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa interviewed Secretary Cardona. Ujifusa asked about Cardona’s decision to continue standardized tests this year, while being willing to work with states and offer some degree of flexibility. In his answer, Cardona expresses some of the same concerns the researchers raise in Monday’s letter about the past two decades’ uses of standardized testing: “To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse.  So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for (labeling) schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that. We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for (educator) evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year. However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion (in federal COVID-19 aid for schools), any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and (addressing) lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important. The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in come places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.” (Parenthetical statements are Ujifusa’s.)

While Secretary Cardona seems to share some of the researchers’ concerns, we will need to observe his actions carefully in upcoming months as he takes over a federal department that has been mired for twenty years in a scheme organized to stigmatize and punish the schools and teachers serving poor children. These tests have never been used to drive the allocation of resources on a scale that would help the students in the school districts where our society’s poorest children are segregated. Will Cardona change a department which has tried to shape up low scoring schools by inducing states to punish and sometimes fire the principal and the teachers, or by imposing school closures or state takeovers, or by encouraging states to locate privatized charter schools or offer private school vouchers to students in those districts?

In his recent book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black highlights the massive school funding inequity that has endured throughout the past twenty years of standardized, test-based school accountability: “(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… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need. (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Widespread Attacks on Voting Rights and Attempts to Privatize Public Schools Together Threaten Democracy

In Friday’s NY Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie reflected on Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s first speech on the Senate floor:

“Warnock is the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and only the second elected from the South since Reconstruction. His presence on the Senate floor is historic just on its own.  It represents progress—and yet it is also evocative of the past. A Black lawmaker from the South, urging his mostly white colleagues to defend the voting rights of millions of Americans is, to my mind, an occasion to revisit one particular episode in the history of American democracy: the fight in Congress over the Civil Rights Act of 1875.”

Bouie summarizes what was in this bill, proposed by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in a Reconstruction Congress right after the Civil War: “As originally written, Sumner’s bill would, ‘Secure equal rights in railroads, steamboats, public conveyances, hotels, licensed theaters, houses of public entertainment, common schools, and institutions of learning authorized by law, church institutions, and cemetery associations incorporated by national or State authority; also on juries in courts, national and State.'” In 1871, the bill was repeatedly blocked in committee, but Senator Sumner reintroduced it in modified form in 1873: “This revised bill added a clause that stated that ‘no citizen of the United States shall, by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, be excepted or excluded from full and equal enjoyment’ of ‘common schools and public institutions of learning, the same being supported by moneys derived from general taxation or authorized by law.'”

School integration held up the bill’s passage, however, and when it finally passed in 1875, “It did so without the schools clause.” “It was the schools clause that proved especially controversial… (O)pponents saw school desegregation as collapsing a distinction between public rights that would allow the government to invade all provinces of an individual’s life.”

Senator Raphael Warnock addressed his colleagues last week not about the denial of educational rights but about the attack on voting rights during the recent election and in a rash of new attempts to block legislation which would guarantee access to the ballot box: “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era… This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Here in Ohio right now, we are in the midst of a three part discussion of Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning. Black, a professor of constitutional law, views denial of the protection of each citizen’s right to vote and the denial of the protection of each child’s right to education as tightly woven threats to our democracy: “Two hundred years ago our founding fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown to the world at the time. The first was democracy—what they called a republican form of government. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined… Our founding ideas, though flawed in their initial implementation, were compelling enough to take root and bear fruit for generations to come. The contradiction between our democratic ideas and practical reality was also strong enough to spark a Civil War and then constitutional change. The post-war Constitution prohibited racial voting restrictions, and then later gender and wealth restrictions. Another century later, the nation doubled down on those ideas through the Voting Rights Act…. The story of public education goes hand in hand with democracy and voting. That story, however, is not as well told… This book mines that history to help us better see who we are and have been—for better and for worse.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 10-11)

Black devotes two chapters to the urgent demand for public schools from freed slaves and a few years later during Reconstruction constitutional conventions when African Americans represented their constituents across the South.  He quotes a resolution passed by an African American Freedman’s convention in Arkansas in 1865: “Clothe us with the power of self-protection, by giving us our equality before the law and the right of suffrage, so we may become bona fide citizens of the state…. That we are… the foundation on which the future power and wealth of the State of Arkansas must be built… we respectfully ask the Legislature to provide for the education of our children.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 99)

Just as Senator Warnick worries that attacks on voting rights in 2021 are reminiscent of the years after the collapse of Reconstruction as Jim Crow state legislatures undermined voting rights, Derek Black worries that today’s trends in public education threaten protection of the public educational system that has been central to preparing citizens for the responsibilities of democracy.  Black explains: “The last decade aligns better with the darker periods of our history than the brighter ones.  The trend is alarming not just for public education. It is alarming for democracy itself.”(Schoolhouse Burning, p.12)

Black examines what has happened to public schools across the states during the Great Recession which began in 2008 and in the years since: “The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Jim Crow and the civil rights backlash saw attacks on public education, too. But those attacking public education did not claim public education was the problem. Rather, black people and the cost and inconvenience of extending equality to black people were the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Black summarizes the trends that concern him: “Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened. Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 226-227)

Black concludes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then recommitted to during the civil rights movement.”  And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…. (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… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education. (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-243)

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Begins to Rectify Injustice in Department’s College Loan Program

Last Thursday, March 18, 2021, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona rescinded a policy devised by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, for processing complaints by students who claimed to have been defrauded by unscrupulous for-profit colleges and trade schools. DeVos’s policy denied debt relief for thousands of students whose complaints were not carefully or fairly considered.

The U.S. Department of Education manages an enormous higher education loan program which has been criticized by borrowers and members of Congress alike—all concerned that under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, student borrowers were left unprotected after for-profit colleges and trade schools induced them to take out big loans for shoddy education programs. Because these institutions are highly dependent on federal student loans to cover their operating expenses, they too frequently prey on students and military veterans with fraudulent advertising about the nature and quality of the programs to which they lure students. A federal rule called “the borrower defense to repayment” is supposed to protect students by cancelling their student loans when the students can prove the schools’ promises were fraudulent.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains the significance of Cardona’s action last week: “About 72,000 people will have their federal loans canceled after Education Secretary Miguel Cardona… scrapped a plan to give partial debt relief to students defrauded by their colleges, ending a controversial policy instituted by his predecessor Betsy DeVos. The move… amounts to roughly $1 billion in debt relief.  But it only addresses a subset of the nearly 200,000 people who have filed claims in the last six years under… ‘borrower defense to repayment.'”

Inside Higher Education‘s Lilah Burke reviews DeVos’s widely criticized scheme for calculating how students’ debt could be erased once adjudicators determined they had been defrauded: “(I)f a borrower’s claim that they were cheated was accepted, the Education Department determined loan relief based on a formula. If a borrower’s earnings after graduation were two standard deviations below the median for similar programs, the department granted the borrower full relief. If the borrower’s earnings were below the median, but not by two standard deviations, the department granted 25, 50, or 75 percent relief.  Under the Obama administration, the department recommended full relief for borrowers that attended the (now closed) for-profit chains Corinthian College and ITT Technical Institute. DeVos said the policies were too generous with taxpayer money and debuted the formula in December 2019.”

Now under Secretary Cardona’s leadership, Douglas-Gabriel reports: “(T)he department will revive the Obama-era policy.  Borrowers whose claims have been approved, including those who previously received partial loan relief, will have a path to a full loan discharge. The department will reimburse any amounts paid on the loans, request credit bureaus to remove negative reporting tied to the debt and reinstate federal aid eligibility…. Eligible borrowers will be notified in the coming weeks.”

Douglas-Gabriel adds that there remain limitations and that Cardona’s department will need to go through a formal process to correct DeVos’s version of ‘borrower defense to repayment’: “The new policy only applies to claims that have been approved to date, not any that are still under review or those that have been rejected. A senior department official told reporters Thursday the agency is reviewing the best approach for those claims going forward. The Biden administration said it will also pursue an overhaul of the prior administration’s rewrite of the borrower defense rules, a process that will require new rulemaking.”

There have been complaints for years about DeVos’s overhaul of the Department of Education’s processing of complaints from indebted students who claim they were defrauded by false advertising. It has also been well known that after she took over the department, a huge backlog of complaints piled up as she balked at processing them. In a New York Times report last week, Stacy Cowley reports on recently uncovered evidence demonstrating that when Betsy DeVos was pressured to begin processing complaints, some of which dated back to the Obama administration, she set up a process that violated the rights of the indebted students:

“The documents were obtained under court order by lawyers in the class-action case, which involves more than 200,000 people who brought claims under a relief program known as borrower defense to repayment… (T)he lawsuit, filed in 2019 in federal court in San Francisco, sought to compel the department to review claims that had languished for as long as four years. In a settlement agreement struck last year, the department agreed to speed things up and make decisions.”

Cowley continues: “Nearly 95 percent of the borrowers in the case whose claims were decided were rejected, according to court filings.” “In Ms. DeVos’s final year in office, her agency denied nearly 130,000 claims—far surpassing the 9,000 rejections in the prior five years—with a system that pressured workers to speed through applications in a matter of minutes…. The department aimed to process 5,000 applications a week.. a standard that required agency employees to adjudicate claims that could stretch to hundreds of pages in less than 12 minutes. Those who did it faster were eligible for bonuses; those who took longer risked being fired. Agency employees rejected claims… for not including written evidence that borrowers were never required to submit.” “After the borrowers’ lawyers complained, Judge William Alsup rejected the settlement in October.  His ruling strongly criticized the department for ‘issuing perfunctory denial notices utterly devoid of meaningful explanation at a blistering pace.'”

Betsy DeVos is no longer operating a college loan program for the benefit of for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of the rights of their students who have, for years in many cases, been awaiting consideration of their particular cases.  It is a good thing that Miguel Cardona, the new Secretary of Education, has begun to correct longstanding injustice in the Department’s adjudication of student loan complaints.

New Report Exposes Rip-Off of Tax Dollars by For-Profit Charter Management Companies

On Wednesday, the Network for Public Education released Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain, a ground-breaking new report on what has become an old, old problem.

Charter schools have now been around since the early 1990s, and here in Ohio, at least, soon after David Brennan, Ohio’s school choice guy, helped Governor George Voinovich get the Cleveland Voucher Program going, Brennan switched his own business over to launching charter schools. He immediately realized that running for-profit charter schools would be far more lucrative. In 1998, Brennan launched White Hat Management, his for-profit charter management company.  He and his company helped launch charter schools and even choose board members to oversee them—to ensure that his company profited at public expense.  His network included the Hope Academy elementary schools and Life Skills Academy high schools, all of which White Hat managed under sweeps contracts, by which the schools turned over to White Hat more than 95 percent of their state funding, without any transparent reporting about spending for staff and equipment or the profits Brennan was raking off the top.

David Brennan died in 2018, but his for-profit empire did not die. The Network for Public Education’s new report shows how another entrepreneur acquired Brennan’s charter empire and expanded it. The new report also examines the operation of for-profit education management organizations across many states and explains why they are a serious threat: “We are in a time when our public schools are struggling to provide all children with the services they deserve during a national pandemic… Now more than ever, it is imperative that every tax dollar be directed to delivering those services. It is time to end chartering for profit and to ensure that children, not corporations, profit from our tax dollars.”

The new report locates where the for-profit charter school management companies are operating: “Based on our match of school names to federal 2018-2019 school year data, over 600,000 students are educated in charters run for profit that we identified, approximately eighteen percent of all students enrolled in charter schools. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia presently have charter schools operated by for-profit corporations… Most of the schools are located in four states—Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Arizona…. Together the seven largest national chains (Academica, National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, K12Inc., Charter Schools USA, Pansophic Learning/ACCEL, and Pearson/Connections Academy) manage 555 schools.  At least one of the big chains operates in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia.”

The Network for Public Education explains that virtually all of the charter schools operating for profit are technically nonprofits whose boards hire for-profit management companies to run the schools. Frequently the management companies, as in the case of David Brennan’s old White Hat company, work with nonprofits to set up the charter schools, or help set up the nonprofits and then help suggest people connected to the management company to be members of the schools’ boards of directors: “The term ‘for-profit charter school,’ while commonly used, does not accurately describe the vast majority of charters designed to create private profit. Only the state of Arizona allows for-profit entities to be licensed as a charter school. In addition, the for-profit charters cannot receive any federal funds. However, those who wish to profit from charter schools have developed creative workarounds to evade state and federal laws. The for-profit management organization, commonly referred to as an EMO, finds individuals to create a non-profit board. That board, which is appointed, not elected, enters into a contract with the for-profit to run the school.”

The report documents all sorts of unsavory business practices being underwritten with our tax dollars: “The first responsibility of any for-profit company is to maximize profit for its owners, and in the case of a public corporation, its shareholders. The typical way to enhance profits is to cut costs… This is often achieved by reducing personnel costs…. either paying teachers less or paying fewer by increasing class size… Savings can also accrue from hiring uncertified teachers or discouraging students who need the most services from enrolling.”  Then there are the big real estate deals when education management companies have subsidiaries that acquire school facilities and charge the schools managed by the EMO outrageous leasing costs. And it goes on and on.

The Network for Public Education’s new report covers the nefarious operations of several of the enormous for-profit education management organizations, but I would like to follow up with the report’s coverage one of those companies now operating in Ohio.  When Ohio’s charter czar David Brennan became ill and eventually died, the story of his charter school empire lived on.

The story actually links to another charter school empire, beginning in 2000, with the launch of K12Inc.,  the huge for-profit, online charter school founded by Ron Packard, “with a $10 million investment from Michael Milken and $30 million from other Wall Street investors.  Previously, Packard had worked for Milken… K12 became a publicly-traded company in 2007.” There was considerable controversy about K12’s practices. Packard left the company, and, “In 2016, after an extensive investigation of the for-profit’s dealings in California, (that state’s) then-Attorney General Kamala Harris announced a $168.5 million settlement with K12 due to its misleading advertising to prospective students and the reporting of inflated attendance numbers.”

In 2014, K12 formed a new company, Pansophic Learning, led by Ron Packard and financed by an investment company located in Dubai. “Pansophic Learning’s name and address were used to register a new Ohio for-profit, ACCEL Schools, LLC. Seven months later, Pansophic took over the contracts of 12 charter schools managed by the controversial White Hat Management. In July 2015, another large for-profit education management organization operating schools in Ohio, Mosaica, ran into financial trouble and sold its assets to Pansophic Learning… Packard continued to build a ‘critical operating mass’ for his new venture. He took over the contracts for 12 I Can charter schools, and also the Ohio Distance Learning Academy (OhDELA), the last of the White Hat Schools. The OhDELA contract is a sweeps contract that funnels 97 percent of the school’s revenue to ACCEL. We looked at several other contracts for ACCEL charters in Ohio and found that schools pay ACCEL either a 12.5 percent or an 18 percent management fee.” And by providing other management services for the ACCEL schools, Packard’s EMO profits from additional fees-per-service.

Why should Packard’s quiet expansion of the ACCEL for-profit charter school venture in Ohio be of concern to Ohio’s citizens and legislators?  Because charter schools are publicly funded and eat up funds the state should be spending on the more than 1.8 million students enrolled in Ohio’s public schools.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black traces how funding charter schools depleted public school funding in Ohio during and after the Great Recession in 2008: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase.  In 2013-14, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter.  Some went deeper in the red.  Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state… All told, charter schools received $7,189 per pupil in state funding.  Public school districts received less than half that amount.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)

The Network for Public Education ends its new report with a constructive list of recommendations for reigning in the for-profit charter school management sector.  An important recommendation is that President Joe Biden’s Department of Education should investigate the extent to which federal Charter Schools Program dollars are being surreptitiously funneled into the for-profit EMOs despite that federal rules prohibit the investment of federal program dollars into charter schools that are, in fact, not independent of for-profit management companies.

Disciplining Ourselves to Stay On Message and Make a Difference for Our Children and Their Public Schools

Over 50 million children and adolescents attend public schools in the United States. Our public schools are spread across every city, town, suburb and rural area. And because they are established and regulated by laws, they embody a promise to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children. The protections embodied in our laws have expanded over more than two centuries as our society’s understanding of children’s rights and needs has grown.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black reminds readers about the history and significance of our public system of education along with the protection of voting rights as the two central guarantees of our democracy: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together by public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 225) “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)

Here in Ohio, we’ve been discussing Derek Black’s new book—about 80 of us gathered on ZOOM. Despite the awkwardness of being together for an entirely online event, one advantage of ZOOM is that we were able to invite Derek Black himself to help launch our first evening’s conversation. He presented an introduction to the book’s history of the founding of public schools and all the subsequent threats to public education—as Reconstruction faded into the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as resistance to Brown v. Board of Education met with opposition strong enough to close public schools for four years between 1959 and 1963 and deny public schooling for the African American children in Prince Edward County, Virginia—and as today public schools face an overwhelming financial drain from charter schools and private school tuition vouchers in an era characterized by tax cutting across many states. Last Wednesday evening, Black concluded his formal remarks by reminding us—all supporters of public education—of the need for disciplined messaging as we try to fight the forces working to undermine our neighborhood public schools.

In the book itself Black explains: “Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you… they want to improve educational opportunity.  If you aren’t sure about that, you will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess… (T)oday’s policy debates skew our frame of reference, trick us into looking at the wrong measures of education’s value and purpose, and distract us from the fundamental questions about the role of public education in our democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 49-50)

Derek Black himself discusses some of these same policy questions in his book, but he urges all of us who cover the debates in education policy to remember to pay close attention to framing the issues.  We need to articulate not only the threats but also the meaning and importance of the institution we are defending. And he would have us remember that today’s threats to taxpayer supported public education are historically connected to the period after the collapse of Reconstruction, when lawmakers in states recently readmitted to the union figured out how to segregate Black children and push them into inferior public schools by making education funding rely more and more on local property taxes. Historically we also should remember that the widespread racial and economic segregation of public schools today is the legacy of the more recent past—the post Civil Rights Movement, when wealth and privilege and racism expressed themselves in court decisions that banned desegregation across jurisdictional boundaries and encouraged families with means to insulate their children in exclusive exurbs.

One particular framing concern I find myself and others struggling to overcome is that, as we try to identify the people and organizations pushing bad policy, we forget to to follow through with a clear definition of precisely how that particular person or organization is undermining the public schools Derek Black holds up as our most important democratic institution.  While it is good to know, for example, that Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children or Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd or Democrats for Education Reform or the Heritage Foundation or EdChoice or the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is actively working to undermine public policy with dollars contributed by wealthy Americans, and while it is important to know the names of specific donors, these facts are not enough.  Advocates must also explicitly demonstrate first, what dangerous policy steps that organization or individual is taking to bring about an outcome; second, how that specific policy will directly undermine the public schools in our particular state or local school district; and third, the logic and steps we must employ to counter that policy.

In Chicago, for example, many people accepted Arne Duncan’s (and later Rahm Emanuel’s) neoliberal Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion project as a nice experiment that might bring more choices to Chicago’s families with few choices. But advocates like Jitu Brown—an organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (and now leader of the Journey4Justice Alliance)—realized that what Renaissance 2010 was really accomplishing was the closure of neighborhood public schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. In 2016, Jitu Brown and other advocates protested the closure of Dyett High School with a 34 day hunger strike. Their advocacy and their action eventually reopened Dyett High School as a public neighborhood high school. After 50 Chicago neighborhood public schools were shut down due to charter school competition in June of 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist Eve Ewing chronicled the massive and widespread community grieving that followed. Renaissance 2010 is a Portfolio School Reform policy to expand charters, and it’s always good to point that out, and even to point out that the theory came from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education.  And it is fine to note that it was Arne’s policy later endorsed by Rahm. But what challenged Chicago to look hard at the danger of public-school-destruction was community advocacy about the meaning of the the school closures themselves. Advocates demonstrated that when Chicago tried Renaissance 2010, it destroyed public education across some of that city’s proud but poor Black neighborhoods.

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black pushes advocates to do a better job of framing: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.  As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then committed to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, 238-243)

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber had a way of capturing the principles we must learn to name explicitly  as we advocate for the public schools.  Barber wrote:

“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 almost perfectly formulates the problem that threatens our public schools in 2021: “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)

Diane Ravitch Offers Pithy Prescription to Help Secretary of Education Cardona Remedy Education Policy

By 2010, there were a lot of people who had grown very concerned about the No Child Left Behind Act and the use of annual high-stakes testing to identify so-called “failing” schools. It was a federal education scheme that imposed punishments on public schools serving America’s poorest students instead of providing help. The movement to condemn No Child Left Behind didn’t crystalize, however, until Diane Ravitch, the education historian and former school reformer, published a book about why she had been wrong.

Here is how she confessed her sins on the first page of the first chapter of that book:  “In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted… At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own. I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms… Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated? The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 1-2)

Ravitch was not the first person to notice that something had gone terribly wrong, but she provided the first coherent analysis of the mass of factors and  ideas that had shaped a new and unfortunate direction for federal policy in public education.

Now Ravitch has done us all another favor.  In a short, concise analysis published by The Progressive, Ravitch adds another decade to her 2010 analysis. She shows readers precisely what President Joe Biden’s administration needs to do to turn away from privatization schemes and from public school reform based on punishing the school districts that serve our nation’s neediest children.  She urges the Biden Administration to focus intensely helping the nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

She begins:  “President Joe Biden will have his work cut out in repairing the damage done to U.S. education caused by Donald Trump and his one-time Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. But Biden and his Secretary of Education…, Miguel Cardona, must also reverse at least twenty years of federal education policy, starting over with measures that allow teachers to teach and children to learn without fear of federal sanctions.”

Ravitch’s short summary of the history that has brought us to where we are today deftly takes us back to 1983 with the publication of The Nation at Risk.  She reminds us about George H.W. Bush’s summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who later when he was President, paved the way for No Child Left Behind by launching the Education Goals 2000.  Ravitch writes: “Goals cost nothing, and they give the illusion of activity. In his ‘Goals 2000’ program, Clinton encouraged every state to write standards and give more tests… George W. Bush topped his predecessors during the 2000 campaign when he claimed that his education plan had produced a ‘miracle’ in  Texas. Test every child every year, he said, and honor schools where scores go up and embarrass schools where they don’t… By the end of 2001, Congress had passed his (No Child Left Behind) law, expanded to more than 1,000 pages, and Bush signed it on January 8, 2002.”

The rest is more familiar recent history.  When, “By 2014, few U.S. schools were on track to reach the law’s demand for 100 percent proficiency… Arne Duncan offered waivers to states from the law’s requirement.”  But he added to the troubles with his Race to the Top, which bribed the states to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funds, “but only if they met certain conditions… increase the number of charter schools… evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students… adopt common national standards… and take swift punitive action against schools that did not raise their scores.”

Ravitch concludes: “The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools… Cardona should begin by offering blanket waivers for the 2021 testing cycle.”

I am certain Ravitch submitted her new article for publication before last week, when a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education released guidance insisting that the federally mandated high stakes testing will continue this year despite COVID-19.  And I am sure she submitted it before Monday evening, when the U.S. Senate finally confirmed Miguel Cardona to his position as the new U.S. Secretary of Education.

We can hope that perhaps Biden and Cardona will somehow correct the Department’s mistaken new guidance that mandates the continuation of high stakes testing this year during COVID-19.  We can hope Secretary Cardona will listen to Ravitch and the huge chorus of parents, deans of colleges of education, teachers unions, the national Superintendents Roundtable and scholarly researchers who study the construction and use of standardized tests.

What is extremely hopeful is that our new President, Joe Biden, has seemed in the past at least to agree with Diane Ravitch’s analysis of what has gone wrong with federal education policy. Biden’s education plan during the campaign emphasized tripling funding for the federal Title I program to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty and fulfilling, within the next decade, Congress’s promise, when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that the federal government would pay for 40 percent of the cost of the mandated programming. (Currently Congress is covering less than 15 percent of the cost.) Biden also advocated greater accountability for charter schools and eliminating federal funding flowing to the for-profit education management organizations that run huge chains of charters. And he declared his support for diminishing the role of high-stakes standardized testing.

If you read one education article this week, I urge you to read and re-read Diane Ravitch’s short, pithy piece in The Progressive.  Maybe even make yourself a copy and put it on your bulletin board or in your wallet and read it again once a month. I certainly urge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to do the same thing.

Ravitch concludes “Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition… Why not try a radically different approach? Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of the students are greatest? Give the schools that enroll students with disabilities the resources that Congress promised but never delivered.  Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play. Now that would be a revolution!”