Why Democratic Candidates for President Need to Stop Waffling About Charter Schools

On Monday morning, Diane Ravitch sent around what I believe is an urgently important post from Michigan’s Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan, a retired, National Board Certified Michigan public school teacher and 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, previously blogged regularly at Education Week.  She now blogs personally at Teacher in a Strange Land.

In the post Ravitch highlights this week, Flanagan regrets that Democrats running for President continue to waffle about charter schools and too few people are holding them to account on this issue.  At a recent gathering with women discussing politics in her community, Flanagan tried to protest when someone supported Cory Booker’s candidacy: “I interrupted the happy talk: ‘His record on education is terrible. He’s an avowed charter school supporter who nearly destroyed the Newark Public Schools.  He’s a big fan of school choice, even vouchers.’ I looked around the table at a lot of blank faces.  One voice spoke up: ‘So? Why is that so bad?'”

Flanagan explains her own strong opposition to charter schools: “I believe charter schools have done untold damage to public education, and I’ve had twenty years to observe the public money/private management ideology establish itself in Michigan. First, a scattering of alternative-idea boutique schools, another ‘choice’ for picky parents. Then go after the low-hanging fruit, the schools in deep poverty—and then the healthier districts. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations have a ‘right’ to advertise and sell education, using our tax dollars.” (emphasis in the original)

Why are so many people complacent when it comes to considering the complex issues around charter schools? Flanagan believes: “Our citizenry is trained in consumerism—promoting education as just another choice to be made was easy, like FedEx or Blackwater instead of the USPS or the US Military.  Got a problem with the local public school? Don’t invest your time and money in fixing what’s already there.  Pick a new school. It’s the American way.”

Flanagan challenges such consumerist complacency: “Let’s invest more in fully public education…. Let’s acknowledge the places where (public schools have) crumbled and rebuild them, instead of abandoning them.  Let’s work toward more economically and ethnically diverse schools, making them places where building an informed citizenry and developing individual talents—not test scores—are our highest goals”

Reading Flanagan’s column caused me to consider what I would say if somebody asked me why it matters so much that the Democrats running for President refuse to take a courageous stand.

I’d begin by explaining that by waffling—trying to have it both ways about the issue of school privatization—the candidates are refusing to provide strong leadership.  A strong leader would demand that citizens consider all the reasons for protecting America’s most important civic institution.

Here are my seven reasons for believing Democrats running for President ought to express strong support for public schools and opposition to charter schools:

First:   The scale of the provision of K-12 education across our nation can best be achieved by the systemic, public provision of schools.  Rewarding social entrepreneurship in the startup of one charter school at a time cannot possibly serve the needs of the mass of our children and adolescents. In a new, September 2019 enrollment summary, the National Center for Education Statistics reports: “Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased… Traditional public school enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.”

Second:   Public schools are our society’s most important civic institution. Public schools are not perfect, but they are the optimal way for our very complex society to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. While our society has not fully realized justice for every child in the public schools, it is by striving systemically to improve access and opportunity in the public schools that we have the best chance of securing the rights of all children.

Third:   Charter schools are parasites sucking essential dollars from the public school districts where they are located. The political economist Gordon Lafer explains that the expansion of charter schools cannot possibly be revenue neutral for the host school district losing students to charter schools: “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.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Fourth:   While some predicted the expansion of charter schools would improve academic achievement on a broad scale, children in traditional public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  According to the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools.”

Fifth:   Opposing for-profit charter schools misses the point.  In most states, charter schools themselves must be nonprofits, but the nonprofit boards of directors of these schools may hire a for-profit management company to operate the school. Two of the most notorious examples of the ripoffs of tax dollars in nonprofit (managed-for-profit) charter schools were in my state, Ohio. The late David Brennan, the father of Ohio charter schools, set up sweeps contracts with the nonprofit schools managed by his for-profit White Hat Management Company.  The boards of these schools—frequently people with ties to Brennan and his operations—turned over to White Hat Management more than 90 percent of the dollars awarded by the state to the nonprofit charters. These were secret deals. Neither the public nor the members of the nonprofit charter school boards of directors could know how the money was spent; nor did they know how much profit Brennan’s for-profit raked off the top. Then there was Bill Lager, the founder of Ohio’s infamous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—technically a nonprofit.  All management of the online charter school and the design and provision of its curriculum were turned over to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies—Altair Management and IQ Innovations. ECOT was shut down in 2018 for charging the state for thousands of students who were not really enrolled. The state of Ohio is still in court trying to recover even a tiny percentage of Lager’s lavish profits.

Sixth:   Malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance plague charter schools across the states. Because charter schools were established by state law across the 45 states where charters operate, and because much of the state charter school enabling legislation featured innovation and experimentation and neglected oversight, the scandals fill local newspapers. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad examples of outrageous fraud and mismanagement by charter schools.  Because neoliberal ideologues and the entrepreneurs in the for-profit charter management companies regularly donate generously to the political coffers of state legislators—the very people responsible for passing laws to regulate this out-of-control sector, adequate oversight has proven impossible.

Seventh:   The federal Charter Schools Program should be shut down immediately. Here is a brief review of the Network for Public Education’s findings in last spring’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  A series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated the federal Charter Schools Program (part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education) as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools across the country. The CSP has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants. The Network for Public Education found that the CSP has spent over a $1 billion on schools that never opened or were opened and subsequently shut down: “The CSP’s own analysis from 2006-2014 of its direct and state pass-through funded programs found that nearly one out of three awardees were not currently in operation by the end of 2015.”

Last June in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner defined the political philosophy known as neoliberalism and showed how this kind of thinking has driven privatization across many sectors previously operated, for the public good, by government: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

For three decades, neoliberalism has reigned in education policy. The introduction of the neoliberal ideal of competition—supposedly to drive school improvement—through vouchers for private school tuition and in the expansion of charter schools has become acceptable to members of both political parties.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains elegantly and precisely what is wrong with neoliberal thinking in general. I think his words apply directly to what has been happening as charter schools have been expanded to more and more states. The candidates running for President who prefer to waffle on the advisability of school privatization via charter schools ought to consider Barber’s analysis:

“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)

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Innovation Ohio Report: Ohio Budget Eases Oversight of Charter Schools and Provides Windfall for Ohio School Vouchers

In the 2020-2021 biennial Ohio budget signed into law in July, lawmakers quietly embedded the radical expansion of school privatization. Rewards for charter schools and tuition voucher expansion are written into the budget in a lots of little ways, however, which means that, during the budget debate, few noticed the overall significance of exploding state support for school privatization. A new report released last week by Innovation Ohio, however, connects the dots among several measures which together will undermine oversight of charter schools and at the same time radically expand tuition vouchers. The report includes an examination of the fiscal implications for local public school districts.

The former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of Finance and now Innovation Ohio’s education policy fellow, Steve Dyer authored the report, which ought to be essential reading for legislators and a broad range of citizens—from experts to people who have not previously tracked the issue. Dyer writes a basic primer and at the same time an analysis sophisticated enough to teach experts something new.

Dyer begins: “When Governor Mike DeWine signed HB166 into law, he approved a budget that lawmakers had packed full of little-noticed gifts to those who seek to erode support for traditional public schools through a proliferation of charter and private school options funded at taxpayer expense.”  Dyer explains that the new Ohio budget:

  • weakens Ohio’s 2015 charter school oversight law that mandated automatic closure for academic failure after two years;
  • weakens standards for Ohio’s already deplorable sector of “dropout recovery” charter schools;
  • weakens Ohio’s oversight of its many charter school authorizers; and
  • increases the transfer of state and even local taxpayer dollars to private—mostly religious—schools.

STATE BUDGET WEAKENS OVERSIGHT OF CHARTER SCHOOLS

Although in 2015, the state cracked down on academically failing charter schools by mandating their closure after two years of failing test scores, the new budget awards these schools an extra, third year to stay in business. The new budget gives 52 schools which had been preparing to close another year of life. Dyer adds: “Interestingly, of the 52 charters that were scheduled to be closed under the old standard, 34 are run by for-profit charter school operators, including almost 20 percent of the former White Hat schools now being operated by Ron Packard—the founder of K-12 Inc.—the nation’s largest (and most notorious) online charter school operator. Another big operator set to take a hit was J.C. Huizenga’s 10 Ohio-based National Heritage Academies. Six of those were on the chopping block before the legislature offered a legislative reprieve. Huizenga is an acolyte of Betsy DeVos—the controversial U.S. Secretary of Education—and his political connections have kept his schools afloat for years, despite complaints….”

The new state budget also weakens standards at a set of charter schools described by their promoters as providing opportunity for students who have dropped out of school. While the education of school dropouts is a worthy purpose, in Ohio, the state has been providing millions of dollars of support for schools that clearly fail to accomplish that stated goal: “Some graduate less than two percent of their students in four years and less than 10 percent in eight years. The state’s already lax standards only require that dropout recovery schools graduate eight percent of their students in four years.”  Before they can graduate, students in these schools must pass a state-approved test, but the new budget permits these schools, “to adopt another, easier test, and reduces the passing score.” It is predicted that the change in standards will save some of these schools from mandatory closure.

Ohio is also known as a state with too many charter school authorizers—organizations all over the place—often sponsoring schools in places hundreds of miles away from the sponsor’s own location. Dyer explains how the new budget eases up oversight of the organizations that earn tax dollars for sponsoring and, supposedly, overseeing charter schools: “The Budget Bill orders the Ohio Department of Education to re-evaluate sponsors’ previous accountability ratings to take into account these new, weaker dropout recovery standards. As a result, these sponsors will get a do-over on their previously-failing oversight grades… Allowing sponsors to re-do their past evaluations greatly weakens the oversight the state can exert over the overseers, allowing for the possibility of more ECOT-like scandals to proliferate and rob Ohio taxpayers of resources that could be better spent in traditional public school buildings or higher-performing charter schools.”

NEW OHIO BUDGET SWELLS FUNDING FOR SCHOOL VOUCHERS

While Dyer devotes the first half of his report to charter schools, readers definitely need to keep reading, for Dyer’s strongest critique is of the “voucher explosion” in the state’s new budget bill: “Ten years from now, it’s not impossible to imagine that we’ll look back at HB166 as the ‘Voucher Bill,’ thanks to the massive expansion of vouchers the budget bill will infuse into the system.”

Ohio has five voucher programs. EdChoice Vouchers for students in so-called “failing” schools are funded through a school district deduction. EdChoice Expansion Vouchers for poor children are fully funded by the state. There are also Autism Vouchers and Peterson Special Education Vouchers.  And finally there is the original Cleveland Voucher Program for students in that city school district.  Dyer reports on the growth of state and local tax dollars flowing into all of these programs together: “What was once a single program in one city that cost taxpayers $2.9 million has become a more than $333.8 million annual venture, with 581 of the state’s 610 school districts losing at least one student to vouchers over the last 5 years.”

The new Ohio budget’s expansion of vouchers is largely in the EdChoice Expansion‘s state-funded vouchers: “This is thanks primarily to the bill’s $73.3 million annual expansion of the EdChoice Expansion program—an income-based voucher that any child who meets an income requirement can take to have taxpayers subsidize their private (and in most cases religious) education. In terms of scale, 10 years ago, all voucher deductions put together were only $56 million… (U)nder the expansion, families of four earning up to $103,000 now qualify for a nearly $3,000 taxpayer funded public subsidy to offset their private-school tuition.  It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of Ohio households would qualify for at least half of the full voucher amount.”

In the new report, Dyer does not cover one additional way the new Ohio budget expands vouchers—this time in the EdChoice Voucher program. The change is already proving consequential for school districts, because EdChoice Vouchers are deducted from school districts’ budgets. In August, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) published an update on its website to inform school treasurers about what just happened. OASBO reports that although legislators have always said the purpose of vouchers is to provide an escape from so-called “failing’ schools, and although the law used to require that, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students, except Kindergartners, must have been previously enrolled in a public school, the new Ohio budget provides that high school students are now exempt from that rule.  OASBO explains: “Generally, students wishing to claim a voucher under the original EdChoice voucher program must have attended a public school in the previous school year. However, HB 166 codifies in law… (that) students going into grades 9-12 need not first attend a public school. In other words, high school students already attending a private school can obtain a voucher.”

In his new report, Dyer calculates the very significant fiscal consequences for the state’s public schools when the loss of money from the various voucher programs is added together: Adding all the different Ohio school voucher programs together: “Between 2002 and today, the average per pupil voucher has grown from just over $1,300 to $6,512 per student, adjusted for inflation.  Meanwhile, the state’s per pupil public school investment has seriously lagged that of its private school counterparts, going up from $4,100 to $4,782 in inflation adjusted dollars during the same period… It is… troubling that the state has chosen to increase its investment of taxpayer money in private, mostly religious schools by 428% since 2002, while at the same time only delivering a 12% increase in state per pupil investment in public school districts.”

Dyer demonstrates the consequences for local school districts: “(A)s students depart public schools using vouchers, the school districts they leave behind see their state resources decline accordingly, forcing them to dig into local resources (or cut programming) to make up the difference.” The voucher program has taken so much money out of school district budgets that, to provide examples of the consequences of school voucher expansion, Dyer lists the millions of local dollars needed to fill in lost state revenue between 2014 and 2018 in each of the state’s top 20 losers to vouchers (in a table, on page 8). Here are the top three losers to vouchers in that list: the Columbus school district has had to replace $28,015,593 lost to vouchers; the Cincinnati school district has had to replace $20,314,389 lost to vouchers; and a smaller suburban district in greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, where many students use vouchers to pay tuition at religious schools, has had to replace $8,859,655 lost to vouchers.

Dyer concludes: “Given the state’s wholesale infusion of voucher money this budget cycle, it’s not impossible to envision a time when voucher funding may approach or even overtake charter school funding totals.”  This is, of course, all at the expense of the state’s public education budget and the budgets of local public school districts.

Lavish Lobbying Ensures that Washington, D.C. Charter Schools Remain Unregulated

Rachel M. Cohen is a fine investigative reporter, whose stories have appeared in The American Prospect, The Intercept, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and a number of other publications. Her most recent investigation explores a topic that is much in the news: the seeming impossibility of regulating charter schools more than two decades after enabling legislation across state legislatures—and Congressional legislation for Washington, D.C.—created them as an experiment in innovation.

Government oversight of charter schools makes sense to many of us.  Charter schools are a form of government contracting.  They are publicly funded and privately operated.  As publicly funded institutions, they ought to be responsible for adhering to the laws that protect their students’ rights.  And surely, charter schools ought to be regulated to protect the investment of tax dollars. But in Washington, D.C., as in many other places, charter school operators and advocates continue to push hard against even modest public oversight.

For the Washington City Paper, Cohen investigates the all the forces that have prevented public oversight of charter schools in the nation’s capital—a city where Congress is directly involved in local school district affairs: “When (Bill) Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.” “In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the (D.C.) Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.”

Local leaders demanded additional oversight of charter schools in the District of Columbia for very good reasons: “From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an ‘insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.’  Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to ‘keep their notebooks open’ to conceal the lack of books. At another charter, closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had ‘awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.'”

Cohen’s subject is extravagant lobbying by an array of organizations: “Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself ‘the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,’ more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.  While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS.  Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ ‘voluntary student payments,’ totaling more than $340,000.  In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate.  In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs…  (F)or more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations….”

Cohen continues, “For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away.”

Advocacy by FOCUS expanded suddenly in 2008 when the Walton Family Foundation began contributing: “At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000… A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016.  Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.  As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later, FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations.  According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017 and $165,000 in 2018. In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.”

Other organizations got involved in lobbying for Washington, D.C. charter schools, and many of them have failed to comply with the law by registering as lobbyists. CityBridge, a D.C. foundation led by philanthropist Katherine Bradley, got involved in unregistered lobbying.  In 2015, Democrats for Education Reform DC,  its nonprofit arm Education Reform Now, and its 501(c)4, Education Reform Now Advocacy raised raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures: “By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election… A woman named Catharine Belllinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.”

Even the agency that serves as the sole authorizer for charter schools in Washington, D.C. has become an advocate for the charter sector: “In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools.  But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.”  In 2017, when the D.C. Council considered legislation to set limits on how charter schools could discipline students, “(C)harter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill… ‘As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school… We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.'”

The DC Council is currently considering legislation for the most minimal regulation of D.C. charter schools by subjecting charter schools in the city to freedom-of-information laws: “Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation… seeks to change that… With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again. They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy.”

Cohen describes Shannon Hodge, the executive of a charter school, responding to the proposed legislation to make charter school operations at least more transparent.  In June at a public hearing, Hodge declared: “I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies… We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”  Cohen quotes Royston Lyttle, of the Eagle Academy charter school, agreeing: “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”

Is the Long Alliance of Betsy DeVos and Cory Booker Really Over?

I am not one for complimenting U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but you have to give her credit for one virtue: she is not an opportunist.  She remains a dogged school choice fanatic even though for three years now, she has been unable to get Congress to fund her highest priority, her Education Freedom Scholarship neovoucher-tuition tax credit program.

This year she launched her beginning-of-school-year tour at a Lutheran school in Milwaukee, home of the oldest school voucher program in the country. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the start of DeVos’s September tour: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began her 2019 back-to-school tour Monday.  Given that she runs a publicly funded department and that most U.S. students attend schools in traditional public systems, you might think she would go to one in a district working hard to improve its academic performance.  Nope.  She didn’t go to a public school, and she didn’t choose a city because of the achievements of its public schools.  Rather, she went to St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee and touted that city as the ‘birthplace of modern education freedom.’  That is a reference to a program started under a 1989 law that was the first in the country to give substantial public funding for students to use for private, nonsectarian schools.  It later expanded to include religious schools.  That program was part of what grew to be known as the ‘school choice’ movement, which seeks to find alternatives to traditional public school districts so families can decide for themselves where to send their children and to serve as an escape for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods.  For decades, DeVos has played a key role in that movement, pushing against critics who argue that using public funds to support choice schools undermines the traditional public system, and that it aims at privatizing the nation’s most important civic institution.”

This week, for the Washington Post, Michael Kranish profiles a politician who, unlike DeVos, has demonstrated that he is the consummate opportunist, Cory Booker, who is running for president as a Democrat and who is claiming this year that he has abjured his previous alliance with Betsy and Dick DeVos.  Booker served for years and years as a spokesperson for school vouchers. And he doesn’t appear to have given up his support for charter schools—another privately operated and publicly funded school choice scheme. Kranish details the history of Booker’s previous alliance with Betsy DeVos, an alliance that dates back to a pro-voucher speech Booker delivered nearly two decades ago, a speech in which Booker said: “Wealthy people… ‘have vouchers because they have the power to choose schools for those children.’ It was unfair, he said, that the country’s leaders in effect ‘say to the poorest, most vulnerable Americans that they cannot choose.'”

What Booker somehow missed understanding back in 2000—and what DeVos continues to deny— is that both vouchers and charters suck millions of essential tax dollars out of the public schools to follow a few children even as the majority of children in the public schools lose out. The economist, Gordon Lafer explains the fiscal realities very clearly (and while he focuses on charter schools, it is also true that voucher schemes similarly undermine public school districts as students carry away tax dollars in tuition vouchers for private and religious schools): “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.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

As if to emphasize her determination to support school choice whatever the cost to the public schools her U.S. Department of Education is supposed to protect, DeVos visited Detroit this past week—the city where 80 percent of the charter schools are known to be operated for-profit, even while the city’s public schools have languished.  Michigan Advance‘s Allison Donahue explains that, “Michigan now has the most for-profit-run charter schools in the country.”

DeVos and her husband, Dick, residents of Grand Rapids in western Michigan, once led an unsuccessful campaign to try to bring school vouchers to Michigan, and on her tour this past week, DeVos once again pitted her ideal of marketplace school choice to the systemic provision of public education.  The Detroit News quotes DeVos as she spoke last week at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy—one of 55 charter schools in Detroit.  As usual, DeVos cast the teachers unions as her enemy: “I am focused on doing what is right for students, individual students.  They are focused on protecting their system, protecting ‘what is’ at the expense of ‘what could be’ for kids… Their policies, their approach, has failed way too many kids, and it’s just inexcusable.  And I don’t apologize one bit for continuing to fight for every kid in this country.”

Betsy DeVos is an utterly consistent individualist, even though she seems not to grasp that the purpose of her job as U.S. Secretary of Education is to protect our nation’s system of public schools and to use the tools of her department—the Office for Civil Rights, for example—to ensure that public schools serve the needs and protect the rights of all American students.

Unlike DeVos, Cory Booker, the presidential candidate, cannot brag about consistency in his understanding of education policy.  Kranish examines Booker’s political career: “Cory Booker was a little-known member of the Newark City Council 19 years ago when he received an extraordinary invitation from a Michigan group connected to Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were leading Republican proponents of a state ballot initiative that would allow taxpayer-financed vouchers to pay for private schools. The DeVos family wanted Booker, an African American Democrat living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey, to become the face of their effort in Michigan. ‘We wanted someone who wasn’t from the suburbs,’ Dick DeVos said at the time.  Booker accepted.  Appearing in the state at a Grand Rapids debate called ‘School Vouchers–Yes or No?,’ Booker represented ‘Yes.’  He passionately echoed the DeVos view that parents should be able to use tax dollars to pay for a child’s private school education, according to a video of the event obtained by The Washington Post.”  (You can see a video clip of the debate embedded in Kranish’s article.)

Kranish continues: “The debate was the prelude to an unlikely alliance with Betsy DeVos. Booker served with her on the boards of pro-voucher groups, attended numerous meetings with her across the country, and supported key parts of her agenda.  Like a number of elected officials representing cities with poor education records, Booker sought alternatives to a failing system. He decided to back vouchers and charter schools. Booker’s political career took off as a parade of wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others who supported DeVos’s ‘school choice’ viewpoint poured money into his campaigns and pet projects. But as Booker runs for president, his relationship with DeVos, his previous support of vouchers and his continuing praise for charter schools present potential roadblocks… In response, Booker has defended his record but also performed a series of reversals and denials. In the most striking instance, Booker said in a recent interview with The Post at his campaign headquarters here that he doesn’t recall his participation in the Michigan debate… Booker now takes a view opposite of his debate stance. He told The Post in a recent candidate survey that ‘the evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help—and in fact, hurt—the cause of educational equity.’  In his interview with The Post, Booker said that while he did initially support vouchers when he was on the City Council, he turned against them by the time he became mayor.”

However, in a stunning 2015 book, The Prize, Dale Russakoff describes Booker, then mayor of Newark, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to bring charter schools to Newark.  Booker recruited Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to make a $100 million donation to be used for that specific purpose and helped arrange for the splashy announcement of that gift on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

It is hard to be confident about where Cory Booker stands when it comes to public education.  Does he understand the fiscal realities posed for public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice? All we can really know for sure about Cory Booker is that he has a history as an opportunist promoting what has been, so far, a successful political career.

After Months-Long Battle, California Finally Enacts Modest Oversight of Charter School Sector

There’s an old cliche that almost perfectly describes the struggle to regulate an out-of-control charter school sector from state to state:  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

In late August, in a presentation at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft named lack of effective regulations in the Ohio laws that enabled charter schools as one of the things he regrets about his tenure as Ohio governor.  Taft, a Republican, served for two terms as governor, from 1999-2007. In his remarks last week Taft explained that during his term, “We were not as observant as we should have been with regard to the early development of charter schools. We didn’t have the quality control we should have had, and as a result, we have a lot of low-quality charter schools. We should have done a better job—making sure operators were good; quality was high.”  (You can listen to Taft’s comments here—at minute 53 in the broadcast.)

This year, the enormous difficulty of regulating charter schools in the public interest has centered in California. California’s original charter school enabling legislation, like the Ohio charter school legislation which Bob Taft now regrets, emphasized innovation and launched a new experiment. But it neglected strict oversight.  Los Angeles Times reporter Taryn Luna explains: “Charter schools in California are publicly funded and independently operated. Originally authorized in 1992 legislation to promote educational innovation, charter schools have evolved from an experiment to a system that enrolls more than 600,000 students across the state.  California ties education funding to enrollment, and charters have often been pitted against traditional neighborhood schools in a competition for students.”

Capital & Main‘s Bill Raden is more blunt.  He sees this year’s battle to regulate California’s out-of-control charter sector as an attempt to correct laws that, “created a California-sized test bed for the never proved, and now largely debunked ‘pure market’ education theories of radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman.”

After months of fierce debate pitting school teachers and public school supporters against the lavishly funded California Charter Schools Association and an even more conservative group, the Charter Schools Development Center, a deal for modestly improved oversight of the charter school sector was reached at the end of August. The deal was formally enacted by California’s state legislature last week. Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond personally brought the two sides together to broker the deal.  The deal won’t rein in some of the most outrageous California charter school authorization practices,  described in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, but at least it will provide  local school districts some control over the charters which elect to operate there.

The Los Angeles Times and EdSource report the details of the new regulations. The agreement provides that school boards can reject new charter school petitions based on the fiscal impact the new school will likely have on district public schools. The plan requires all teachers at charter schools to be fully credentialed. Until now California law has required full credentialing only for teachers of core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies—but districts could hire non-credentialed teachers for the arts and foreign languages.  Under the new agreement, if a proposed charter is refused by the local school district, the charter sponsor may appeal to the county board of education, but appeals may no longer be made for the state to overrule the local school district, except in cases where the local school board is said to have abused its discretion or acted arbitrarily. Charter schools in California will now be evaluated according to the same rating system as the state’s public schools, and the new law makes it at least somewhat easier to shut down academically or financially unsound schools.

There remains concern that the new plan incorporates broad principles, but that it may spawn litigation as it is implemented.

Impetus for the new regulations grew intense this year, especially during teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, where teachers exposed the dire conditions in their public schools, conditions created to a significant extent by the fiscal impact of charters on the public schools. In an academic study, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrated conclusively that the growing charter school sector sucks essential dollars from the public schools—students carrying so much revenue out of the public system that the public districts can no longer maintain core functions required by law without increasing class sizes to unmanageable levels and slashing the number of nurses, counselors, librarians, and enrichment programs.

Demonstrating that in Oakland, charter schools suck $57.3 million from the public system each year, Lafer explains: “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.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

A new study, State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students, also demonstrates that in addition, charter schools in California—just as in other states—educate fewer special education students and far fewer students with severe disabilities.  Diane Ravitch summarizes the conclusions of the study: “The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment (of disabled students) is 11% compared to more than 14% in public schools.  Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate…  In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services.  One celebrated charter in Oakland… known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%.  The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% students with disabilities.”

While California has now taken steps to establish minimal oversight of its charter school sector, nobody believes the fight is over. The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter Howard Blume predicts that the new regulations will only continue to fuel what has been a long and lavishly funded political battle: “A major agreement aimed at setting stronger standards for charter schools stands to intensify power struggles for seats on the Board of Education in Los Angeles, setting the stage for more contentious and costly election battles between charter advocates and allies of the teachers union, a cross section of education leaders and experts said… In Los Angeles, school board elections already were the most expensive in the country—as the influential teachers union went head-to-head against better funded pro-charter school groups seeking a controlling majority on the seven-member body. A record breaking $17 million was spent on three 2017 board races, including nearly $10 million in District 4, where charter-backed Nick Melvoin defeated union-backed school board president Steve Zimmer… The stakes are especially high in Los Angeles, where close to 20% of public school students attend 224 charters, more than any other school system in the nation.  Currently, the board is closely divided on many issues affecting charters, but leans toward tighter restrictions… The agreement between the teachers unions and charter organizations announced by Newsom…represents the biggest revision to state charter law since it was first enacted in 1992, when charters were widely viewed as a niche experiment to foster innovation. They have since become a central education reform strategy, often with wealthy backers and foundations propelling their growth. In Sacramento, there’s been a decades-long stalemate over charter regulations….”

While I agree with Howard Blume that the battle will continue, I am concerned about his and other reporters’ framing of the fight as a simple political battle between lavish backers of charters and teachers unions. Charter schools were created everywhere without any real understanding of the urgent need for public regulation in a system where millions of tax dollars would be flowing into the coffers of entrepreneurs. There is a lot of money sloshing around in the charter sector, including the for-profit charter management companies making big profits from the non-profit charters they are paid to manage. Across the states, this money has flowed generously into the campaign coffers of the state legislators—the very people responsible for public oversight.  California has also seen huge investments in this battle from neoliberal ideologues—Eli Broad, a California native, and additional out-of-state money from the likes of Michael Bloomberg.

In California and across the states, teachers unions represent the people closest to the students in the public schools. Their members provide the primary source of funding to support and promote public education.  On the unions’ side in this battle are also the researchers like Gordon Lafer in the report described above, and Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker, who has also demonstrated that out-of-control charter school expansion is catastrophically undermining the public schools not only in Los Angeles and Oakland, but also across the United States.

California demonstrates all the reasons why it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Embracing Public Schools as the Very Definition of the Common Good

The 2019-2020 school year is now underway, and in an ironic twist, in a business journal, the academic dean of the college of education at the for-profit University of Phoenix has penned a beautiful reflection on the meaning of public education. Dean Pam Roggeman understands the meaning for families and for communities of their public schools.

Roggeman writes: “This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who…  send their kids to school for the first time. Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated. We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.”

Roggeman defines the reason public schools are one of our society’s best opportunities for establishing systemic justice for children: public schools are required by law to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children: “(T)here is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious.”

Reading Roggeman’s reflection on public education as an essential civic institution caused me to dig out a Resolution for the Common Good, passed by the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ more than a decade ago, when I was working in the justice ministries of that mainline Protestant denomination. The resolution was passed unanimously in 2005, in the midst of a decade when an ethos of individualism was accelerating.

The values defined in the introduction to the resolution mesh with Roggeman’s consideration of public schools as the essence of community: “The Twenty-fifth General Synod calls upon all settings of the United Church of Christ to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States, rejects the notion that government is more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions, and reaffirms the obligation of citizens to share through taxes the financial responsibility for public services that benefit all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, to work for more equitable public institutions, and to support regulations that protect society and the environment.”

The introduction of the resolution continues: “A just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community. In the past quarter century our society has lost this ethical balance. Our nation has moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self interest at the expense of community responsibility. The result has been an abandonment of the common good. While some may suggest that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population. While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the importance of government for providing public services on behalf of the community… The church must speak today about the public space where political processes are the way that we organize our common life, allocate our resources, and tackle our shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the dollars we allocate, and the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order and peace.”

Recognizing “significant on-going efforts to privatize education, health care, and natural resources, and to reduce revenues collected through taxes as a strategy for reducing dependency on government services,” the delegates resolved “that the United Church of Christ in all its settings will work to make our culture reflect the following values:

  • that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens;
  • that government policy and services are central to serving the common good;
  • that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good;
  • that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses;
  • that the tax code should be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means; (and)
  • that the integrity of creation and the health and sustainability of ecological systems is the necessary foundation for the well-being of all people and all living things for all time.”

Since that resolution passed in 2005, we have watched an explosion of economic inequality, the defunding and privatization of public institutions including K-12 public education, the defunding of social programs; the growth of privatized and unregulated charter schools, the abuse of power by those who have been amassing the profits, and the abandonment of policies to protect the environment.

A just and good society balances the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. I believe that the majority of Americans embrace these values.  I wonder how we have allowed our society stray so far.

MGT Consultants: Profiting from the School Crisis in Gary, Indiana and Taking Over Three Colorado School Districts

This blog will take a late summer break.  Look for a new post on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.

In a blog post on Monday, Diane Ravitch warned: “Colorado be very afraid.”  She is commenting on a decision by the state board of education in Colorado to hire a for-profit education management company to take over three school districts which Colorado’s state board has deemed “troubled.”

Ravitch is writing about an article from Sentinel Colorado, which explains: “As Colorado school districts struggle and fail to raise student test scores in schools with entrenched problems, they’re turning to private companies to fix public schools, for millions of dollars. Some critics question whether at least one of those private companies is qualified for the job based on their track record in another state and their close ties to what some say are anti-public schools alliances.”  The three districts are to be taken over by Florida’s MGT Consulting.

Sentinel Colorado‘s Grant Singer explains: “Leaders of the Florida-based MGT say they specialize in allocating public money more effectively while improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom and school culture. Its management process includes sub-contracting areas of school work to other companies, and it boasts completing over 10,000 projects in many states and abroad over several decades… MGT’s current chief executive officer also co-founded a consulting and lobbying firm tapped into a national network of for-profit education institutions, Republican education reformers, the testing industry and charter schools. That’s part of what draws controversy as public school academia question the motives of a company headed by pro-school voucher officials working to save failing public schools—for profit.”

Colorado state school board members praised MGT’s record in the so-called turnaround of the only whole school district it has managed—for the past two years—in Gary, Indiana.  The fact that MGT Consulting, a for-profit, was praised for work in Gary caught my eye. I have been to Gary, just as I have been to Detroit, whose public schools have shared some problems with Gary’s. Detroit’s school district was assigned a state emergency fiscal manager by former Governor Rick Snyder; in fact Detroit’s school district was assigned an emergency manager named Darnell Earley after he left Flint, where, as municipal emergency fiscal manager, he had permitted the poisoning of the city’s water supply. Fortunately Detroit’s schools have been turned back to the democratically elected local school board, which hired a professional educator, Dr. Nikolai Vitti.  And I have been to the cities in Ohio now in state takeover, and being operated by appointed Academic Distress Commissions. I am thinking of Youngstown, which in four years under an Academic Distress Commission and appointed CEO, has not turned around. I am thinking of Lorain, where outright chaos has ensued under an Academic Distress Commission’s appointed CEO, David Hardy. And I am thinking of East Cleveland, whose schools are just beginning the state takeover process, and ten other Ohio school districts—including Dayton and Toledo—being threatened with state takeover.

All of these Rust Belt cities and their school districts are characterized by economic collapse. They are industrial cities where factories have closed and workers moved away to seek employment elsewhere. When industry collapses, the property tax base—the foundation of the local contribution of school funding—evaporates, and as workers lose jobs or leave, local income tax revenue collapses as well.

The northwest Indiana reporter for WBEZ News in Chicago describes what happened in Gary and how economic collapse has affected the city’s public schools. Writing in February of 2017, WBEZ’s Michael Puente explained: “In December, the school board voted to close Jefferson and two other school district facilities at the end of the academic year to save money.  It’s just the latest cost-cutting effort for a district drowning in red ink. By June, Gary’s accumulated debt is expected to reach $101 million.  In the last two years, Gary has had to close six buildings amid declining enrollment, dwindling tax revenue and competition from public charter schools.  The school system is struggling to make payroll each month. It delayed checks to 700 employees, mostly teachers, in November.  March is also likely to be a problem.” After describing faltering attempts by members of the Indiana Legislature to pass legislation to assist Gary’s schools, Puente adds: “But none will fix two of Steel City’s greatest problems: industry decline and population loss.  Since 1970, some 100,000 residents—almost half the city’s population—have left Gary. Only about 77,000 remain… Gary has been bleeding jobs, especially at the steel mills, for decades. Big employers like U.S. Steel are still around, but its workforce has shrunk over the years. And, the huge steel facility can’t produce fat property tax checks for the local school system because a decade-old state property tax cap limits how much the Gary schools can collect.”

In July 2017, the state took over the school district in Gary and turned the schools over to a private, for-profit management company: MGT Consultants. MGT hired Peggy Hinkley, a retired school superintendent to run the schools, but she resigned a little more than a year later. The Post-Tribune‘s Carole Carlson describes Hinkley’s tenure: “Hinkley served 14 months and ruffled the feathers of some elected officials who criticized her decisions, especially the closing of the Wirt-Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts. When Wirt-Emerson closed in June (2018), it left the district with just one high school, the West Side Leadership Academy. It stoked fears of a continuing exodus of students who would leave for charter schools or other districts… Under Hinckley, Gary reached a deal resolving $8.4 million in back payroll taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS forgave a large portion of the debt, leaving the district with a $320,000 payment. The freeing up of the liens on buildings allowed Hinckley to list 33 vacant schools and properties for sale.  By November, the district had accepted five offers, amounting to $480,000. More sales are still being weighed. In all, Hinckley erased about $6 million of the district’s $100,000 million in long-term debts and reduced its monthly deficit from about $1.8 million to $1.3 million… Academically, all seven elementary schools received Fs on state report cards this year.”

Clearly, in Gary, Indiana, MGT Consultants has not miraculously achieved the kind of quick school district turnaround Colorado’s state school board bragged about when it contracted with MGT to take over three school districts.

And in the background there is also a troubling possible conflict of interest. You may remember that Tony Bennett was the elected state school superintendent in Indiana back when Mitch Daniels was the far-right Republican Governor. Tony Bennett left Indiana in 2013 to go to Florida, where he became the Florida school commissioner, but he resigned (also) in 2013, when it was discovered that, as Indiana’s state superintendent, he had secretly raised the state’s rating of a charter school whose operator was a mega-donor to Indiana’s Republican campaign coffers.

After he left Florida, Tony Bennett became a private consultant and, according to a second article by Carole Carlson of the Post-Tribune, “a partner in the Strategos Group, a Florida company, which acquired MGT Consulting three years ago.  As a result of the acquisition, Bennett became a member of MGT’s board of directors.”

The relevant issue of Bennett’s serving on MGT’s board when the state of Indiana hired MGT to run the Gary Schools is that Bennett worked assiduously with then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to expand Indiana’s statewide private school tuition voucher program and to enable more charter schools—a vigorous school privatization venture that has further undermined enrollment in and funding for the public schools in Gary.  Carlson explains that back when Tony Bennett was the state school superintendent in Indiana, “then Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett led an education reform overhaul that expanded charter schools and launched a vigorous voucher program that gave tax dollars to private schools.  Critics say those policies nudged Gary on its downward spiral.”

Chalkbeat Colorado‘s Yesenia Robles describes the cozy, school-reformer-privatizer connections that may have contributed to the hiring of MGT Consultants to run Gary’s schools.  After all, Colorado is claiming it has chosen MGT Consultants to run three different school districts based on the company’s track record in Gary. Robles doesn’t draw any firm conclusions about the red flags this ought to to have raised among officials in Colorado who hired MGT to manage the three school districts the state has taken over, but she does raise the red flags: “In Gary, the state ordered an emergency manager to come in not only for academic problems, but because the enrollment decline and fiscal management problems landed the district deep in debt. MGT took over the responsibilities of the superintendent and the school board, at the state’s request and reports directly to state officials. The work has been controversial. Some lawmakers called for removing the firm when it was discovered that Tony Bennett, who was state superintendent in Indiana from 2008-2013, is a partner in the Strategos Group, which acquired MGT in 2015. Lawmakers argued that the policies Bennett rolled out in his time as state superintendent contributed to Gary’s financial problems that led the state to require an external manager.”

The Post-Tribune‘s Carlson reports that as of the end of 2018, MGT Consulants’ contract to manage Gary’s school district has reached $10 million.  MGT Consultants stands to make big profits in Colorado as well. Sentinel Colorado‘s Stringer provides details—for example, in MGT’s contract to manage the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City: “MGT’s work in Commerce City will net almost $8.4 million plus up to $1.7 million in incentives for improving the district scores and ratings…. In the first two years of its contract, the group can earn from $300,000 to $400,000 each year for improving test scores at different grade levels and for meeting achievement marks. In the last two years, MGT could make up to $400,000 each year for earning the district and individual schools gains in state ratings, even for bumps to levels below meting standards. The Commerce City district does not have a superintendent nor a chief financial officer and will likely not fill both positions… MGT will manage the more than $150 million in district spending, almost all state and federal dollars.”

My own experience has not familiarized me with the school districts which have been turned over by the state of Colorado to the for-profit MGT Consultants. But when I read about state legislatures and politicians in Rust Belt states taking over school districts and appointing emergency fiscal managers and academic distress commissions and CEOs with unlimited power to make changes without consulting locally elected officials or engaging the local community, I wonder why the democratic process seems always to be abridged in the school districts which serve the poorest children of color. In Gary, I wonder why a for-profit consultant is raking in millions of dollars to cover for the state’s failure to help the school district after the surrounding economy collapsed. The economic tragedy in a place like Youngstown or Lorain or Benton Harbor or Dayton or Gary demands the active engagement of state and local government officials on behalf of the public good and the welfare of the children.