Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… Martinez is an accountant who has been called ‘analytics heavy.’  And in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years… Martinez has never taught or run a school as principal. And, thus, in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with ‘boots on the ground’ experience… Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  Many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent, and educator voice are now at the forefront. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Let Us Count the Ways that Charter Schools Rip Off their Students and the Taxpayers

The National Association for Public Charter Schools, one of the big lobbying organizations for charter schools, proclaims that these institutions operate as public institutions to promote the public interest. But charter schools are a classic example of private contracting. They operate with public tax dollars, but they are governed (often without transparency) by private boards, which themselves operate under state regulations that tend to be extremely lax and poorly enforced. Here are two excellent examples of prominent advocates for traditional public schools and against school privatization dissecting, in depth, the ways that charter schools continue to rip off the public.

New Book Exposes How Charter Schools Regularly Find Ways to Select Students Who Will Be a Credit to the School

On September 10, Teachers College Press published a new book by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado at Boulder: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape EnrollmentMommandi and Welner explore a topic that has emerged again and again in local examples of injustice over the years: Charter schools somehow manage to select their students despite that they advertise themselves as public schools, which are required by law to serve every student who comes through the door.

Back on January 20, 1960, when my family moved to the small town of Havre, Montana, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to the office of Wilbur Swenson, then the school principal.  As the law required, Mr. Swenson assigned me to the 7th grade, and I began school immediately that morning. Despite that today most people must formally enroll at the school district’s main office, the requirement for universal enrollment still works the same way in public schools across the United States. Public schools are required by law to provide programming to serve the needs of all students and must protect their rights. Public schools are not permitted to choose their students.

Over the years, we have read story after story of charter schools that call themselves “public” but somehow cheat on this requirement and get away with it. Now Mommandi and Welner have summarized and explored all the ways charter schools cheat on this requirement, and the reasons why they do: “Our research… taught us that such philosophies about limiting access are not uncommon among charter school administrators. In fact, we discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores.”

In the publicity Teachers College Press released about the new book, Mommandi and Welner provide a table of “13 broad categories containing the many different ways that charter schools shape their enrollment.” Charter schools have especially found ways to exclude students who require expensive special services: “(W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students, or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

New Story Exposes For-Profit  Management Companies with “Sweeps Contracts” Reaping Huge Profits from Shady Real Estate Deals at the Expense of the Nonprofit Charter Schools They Manage

The Network for Public Education’s executive director Carol Burris reports:  “National Heritage Academies (NHA), the third-largest for-profit charter chain in the nation, is selling 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase. Charter Development Co., the real estate arm of NHA, will receive the payout from a sale that requires nearly $1 billion to finance. This massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth is running into some roadblocks, however, in NHA’s home state of Michigan. Both Charter Development Co. and National Heritage Academies are owned by J.C. Huizenga, an education reform entrepreneur… The sale of the 69 NHA campuses in seven different states, like the operation of Huizenga’s charter schools, is wrapped in secrecy, even though taxpayers have paid the mortgages for years.”

Most state laws require charter schools to be nonprofits. But many small private nonprofit boards turn over the operation of their charter school to a for-profit management company. Sweeps contracts are commonplace—contracts under which the nonprofit board turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to the for-profit management company without any transparency about how the management company will spend the funds. National Heritage Academies manages its 90 schools under sweeps contracts. “Other examples of sweeps contracts include the contract between the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy and the for-profit chain Accel Online Ohio, a Nevada limited liability company; the contract between the Northeast Raleigh Charter Academy, and its for-profit management Torchlight Academy Schools; and the contract between Ohio Virtual Academy and K12 Virtual Schools.”

Burris continues: In most cases, for-profit management is an attempt to get around Title 20 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires (charter) schools to be nonprofit organizations to be eligible to receive federal funding. The nonprofit school is a facade for the for-profit corporation… Ultimately, Huizenga’s charter school cash-out financed by the taxpayers will probably go forward.  Unless Congress acts and closes the loophole, the 139 for-profit corporations that manage more than 1,100 charter schools in the United States will continue to put profits before taxpayers and kids.  And more cash-outs funded at taxpayers’ expense will occur.”

Charter schools have been operating now for a quarter of a century, and we have watched their abuses city by city.  But the stories of violations of the public interest and and fraud and corruption have only become more complex as their operators figure out new ways to rip off public tax dollars and violate core principles of public education by quietly selecting their students and leaving students with expensive needs in the public schools.

With the Ohio Legislature, Even When You Win, You Lose

In the new state budget, the Ohio Legislature supposedly fixed an inequitable and troubling scheme for funding the state’s extensive private school vouchers.

In recent years, through something called “school district deduction funding,” the state has counted each voucher student as though he or she attended the public schools in the district where the voucher student resides and then sent the voucher amount—$4,650 for younger students and $6,000 for high school students—to the private school right out of the local school district budget.  In my school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, and many others, the cost of each voucher was far more than the district received from the state in school foundation basic aid for that student. The result in my school district, which has a growing religious community applying for vouchers, was that in five years the district’s annual loss to vouchers grew from $2,256,017 in 2017 to $9,017,250 in 2021 (last school year). That $9,017,250 lost by our school district last school year constituted 45 percent of our school district’s state foundation basic aid even though 1,699 of our district’s 1,792 voucher students—roughly 95 percent— have never been enrolled in our public schools.

Statewide, the school district deductions for vouchers have been disequalizing. The state offered the vouchers only to students who reside in the attendance zone of a Title I school, which means that the vouchers extracted the money for vouchers out of the budgets of school districts serving concentrations of the state’s poorest children—leaving less money for the students remaining in the public schools.

As promised, in the state budget passed at the end of June, the Legislature ended school district deductions to pay for private school tuition vouchers (and other deductions from school district budgets to pay for charter schools).

In a state where the only way to make up for money lost to vouchers and charters is to go on the ballot to try to pass local school operating levies, there was widespread relief and jubilation about the end of local school district deductions. In my own school district, on the assumption that we won’t need to pay such high local school taxes anymore, some people have even proposed that the school board rescind the most recent school levy.

But the end of school district deduction funding for vouchers was passed by the Ohio Legislature as part of a new school funding plan that had been included in the new state budget. The Fair School Funding Plan had been designed with a six year phase-in. But the Republican leaders in the Ohio Senate refused to pass the full six year phase-in. They merely passed the first two years of the plan, which means that the full plan won’t be operational this year or even next year. In fact, it may not ever be realized unless future legislatures fully fund it.

This summer, when the Ohio Department of Education released computer runs of state foundation per-pupil funding for the current 2021-2022 school year, it became clear that—despite the end of school district deduction voucher funding—there is a continuing state funding penalty for school districts which have experienced explosive growth of vouchers over the recent years. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s FY2022, Summary School Funding Reports released this summer, for my district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, total net state school funding will be $7,024,199,33, an increase of only $41,310 over last school year. By looking at two relatively comparable inner-ring suburban Cleveland school districts, the problem becomes evident: Shaker Heights, a smaller district in a wealthier community, will be getting $15,310,927.25 in net state school funding, and Lakewood, a slightly smaller district and economically similar to Cleveland Heights-University Heights will be getting $17,143,938.65 in net state school funding.  State printouts show Cleveland Heights-University Heights receiving 46 percent of the amount of state funding Shaker will receive and 41 percent of what Lakewood will receive from the state.

What is going on?

In August in a powerpoint which Cleveland Heights-University Heights’ district treasurer, Scott Gainer presented to the CH-UH Board of Education, he explains that, while the new state budget promised a “fair school funding plan,” legislators continue to assign the ongoing costs of previously awarded vouchers to the local school districts where the students carrying those old vouchers reside. While, the Legislature’s recent elimination of school district deductions for vouchers will protect  local school district budgets from absorbing the cost of new vouchers the state awards in the future, it appears that at least for a time local school districts will carry the burden of the explosive growth of vouchers in recent years.

But the state no longer calls what is happening “a school district deduction.”   How did the Legislature accomplish this slight-of-hand? Instead of calculating the actual phase in of an entirely new school funding formula, the Ohio Department of Education is using last year’s net state funding for each school district as the baseline for future funding.

When I asked Gainer to explain what’s happening, he told me: “The big discrepancy is that the starting point the state is using to begin phasing in the plan (over 6 years, with no guarantee that they will continue to do so) is the net funding from last year (gross funding less all voucher/scholarship/charter deductions).  We have had so many deductions that our net was lower than the surrounding school districts. In theory, by year 6 of the phase-in, the other districts will have moved very little, while we will increase each year to a similar funding level. I’m not holding my breath that the plan will survive two more biennial budgets.”

There is some reason to hope for some more optimistic news next month.  In July, the Ohio Department of Education announced that computer runs based on last school year’s net funding levels as the basis of the new school funding plan are temporary while the state figures out how the new formula will work—with a planned phase-in (but remember the Legislature’s stated decision to adopt only the first two years of the six-year phase-in).  The Ohio Department of Education promises new calculations in October, 2021: “The State Funding Payment Reports and payments for July through September will generally reflect net funding levels equal to FY2021 levels, with the goal of implementing the new funding calculations… by October.”

Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools Treasurer Gainer expects that in October the district will experience some jump in revenue, but there are two caveats.  First, the calculations in the school funding plan included in the state budget were based on the enactment of a six-year phase-in, and the district will likely experience only what that first year of correction will bring (and legislative leaders in the Oho Senate continue to hint that the six-year phase-in may never be fully implemented).

Additionally, there is a second problem. The new budget folds an important budget line from the previous budget biennium, Governor Mike DeWine’s Student Wellness and Success Program, into the current budget’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid without additional funding. Ohio’s school funding expert, Howard Fleeter explains that the change “raises questions as to whether this funding stream will ultimately be spent on new initiatives to help reduce non-academic barriers to student success (as envisioned by Governor DeWine) or will simply be absorbed into the spending that districts are already incurring.”  The committee that developed the Fair School Funding Plan had originally anticipated that a big bump in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid would be awarded to schools in the first year—the current school year—of the new budget biennium, but the Ohio Senate blocked the adoption of that provision.

For these reasons, in a July 9 statement on projected school funding under the new state budget—including the elimination of the school district deduction, Gainer estimated that in October, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district may realize some additional state foundation funding beyond the $7,024,199,39 projected in Ohio Department of Education printouts over the summer: “(S)imulations provided by Ohio’s school business professional organizations indicate CH-UH will receive an additional $2 million in year one (21-22 school year) and an additional $1.3 million in year two (22-23 school year) over our current funding… The detailed amounts will be provided by the Ohio Department of Education in October.”

Certainly the students, educators, and local taxpayers in Cleveland Heights and University Heights can hope for this additional funding, but its addition would still leave us far behind the state funding being awarded to comparable neighboring school districts.

The problem represents a serious case of structural inequity in what was supposedly a “fair school funding plan.” Ohio legislators managed to revise, readjust, and underfund the plan in the new state budget.  They have merely perpetuated a long history in Ohio of inadequate and inequitable public school funding.

Remembering Mike Rose

Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, died in August.  Those of us who value thinking about education practice, education philosophy, and education policy will deeply miss Rose’s blog and his wisdom. But we will continue to have his books, and now is a good time to revisit some of them.

Rose was an educator, not a technocrat. In our society where for a quarter of a century education thinkers and policymakers have  worried about the quality of the product of schooling as measured by standardized test scores, Rose calls our attention to the process: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate— or constructed at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?”  (Why School?, p. 14)  In Why School?  Rose explores a very different philosophy of education than what was embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34)

In the mid-1990s, Rose spent several years traveling around the United States visiting the classrooms of excellent teachers. The product of this work is Possible Lives, perhaps the very best book I know about public schooling in the United States and about what constitutes excellent teaching. Rose begins the book’s introduction: “During a time when so many are condemning public schools—and public institutions in general—I have been traveling across the country visiting classrooms in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized. These are classrooms judged to be good and decent places by those closest to them—parents, principals, teachers, students—classrooms in big cities and small towns, preschool through twelfth grade, places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning… Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination. I visited schools for three and a half years, and what struck me early on—and began to define my journey—was how rarely the kind of intellectual and social richness I was finding was reflected in the public sphere… We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries… We are offered, by both entertainment and news media, depictions of schools as mediocre places, where students are vacuous and teachers are not so bright; or as violent and chaotic places, places where order has fled and civility has been lost.  It’s hard to imagine anything good in all this.” (Possible Lives, p. 1)

Here, however, are Rose’s conclusions in the book’s final chapter: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms in addition to whatever else we may understand about them, represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society. These rooms were embodiments of the democratic ideal… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)  In his stories of four years’ of visits to public schools, Rose presents our nation’s system of public schooling as a defining American institution.

Rose appreciates and celebrates the work of public school teachers: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable.  They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal…  As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… A teacher must use these various kind of knowledge—knowledge of subject matter, of practice, of one’s students, of relationwithin the institutional confines of mass education. The teachers I visited had, over time, developed ways to act with some effectiveness within these constraints—though not without times of confusion and defeat—and they had determined ways of organizing their classrooms that enabled them to honor their beliefs about teaching and learning… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms. Thus the high expectations they held for what their students could accomplish… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423

With his strong interest in the life of the classroom and the experience of education, Rose definitely does not ignore education policy, but he looks at policy decisions from the point of view of the students, their families and the community.  Here is how he examines one of No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s strategies: —school closure as a turnaround policy: “Closing a school and transferring its students is unsettling in the best of circumstances… For low-income communities, the school is often one of the few remaining institutions. Transfer also brings to the fore issues with transportation, with navigating streets that mark gang turf, with shifting kids from the familiar to the strange. And all this happens in communities already buffeted by uncertainty about employment, housing, health care, and food on the table… Race to the Top… raises broad questions about innovation in public education and makes funding contingent on change… But the model of change has to be built on deep knowledge of how the organization works, its history, its context, its practices. The model of change in Race to the Top seems to be drawn from ideas in the air about modern business, ideas about competition, innovation, quick transformation, and metrics—an amalgam of the economistic and the technocratic.  This is not a model of change appropriate for schools….” (Why School? pp. 63-65)

Rose was not, however, a fan of the status quo; he was a believer in the need for ongoing school improvement, but not the technocratic, top-down, ideological school reform imposed in recent decades: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination… There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.” (Why School?, pp 203-204)  “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

In the age of Teach for America, created by Wendy Kopp as her senior project at Princeton for the purpose of inserting brainy Ivy Leaguers into classrooms because their privileged backgrounds were thought to be gifts to the children of the poor, Mike Rose’s perspective is countercultural.  Rose instead wrote about the experiences of students discovering higher education as the first in their families to enroll in college. Lives on the Boundary and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education examine the work of community colleges, the challenges their students face economically as they struggle to pursue an education, and the personal meaning of their experiences apart from the job training they may acquire. And in The Mind at Work, Rose explores the intellectual demands of so-called blue-collar work.

I urge you to read or re-read some of these books as a way to celebrate Mike Rose’s legacy. None of these books feels dated. Rose’s writing is fresh and lucid. He will challenge you to examine the importance of public schooling in these times when corporate, test-based school accountability and school privatization continue to dominate too much of the conversation about education in the United States.

Jeb Bush’s Pitiful Attempt to Defend Federal Funding of Charter Schools Managed by For-Profit Companies

It’s clear that the charter school lobby is upset about the House of Representatives’ effort in its proposed budget resolution to curtail abuses in the federal Charter Schools Program and to reduce the program’s appropriation by $40 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

Jeff Bryant explained last week: “The top lobbying group for the charter school industry is rushing to preserve millions in funds from the federal government that flow to charter operators that have turned their K-12 schools into profit-making enterprises, often in low-income communities of color. The group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), objects to a provision in the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2022 education budget that closes loopholes that have long been exploited by charter school operators that profit from their schools through management contracts, real estate deals, and other business arrangements.”

The executive director of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nina Rees went on C-Span to try to defend the program, and now it’s clear that the organization is calling on old allies to push Congress to cancel the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed elimination of all federal funding for charters operated for-profit by Charter Management Organizations. Bryant reminds us that Nina Rees was the deputy assistant for domestic policy for former Vice President Dick Cheney.

This week Jeb Bush, the ultimate old advocate for school privatization, came out of the woodwork with an op-ed circulated all over the country by the Tribune News Service. Bush’s piece appeared in our Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer. Toward the end of his article, Bush gets to the point and protests the proposed House Budget Resolution: “Not only does it specifically cut $40 million in education funding (from the Charter Schools Program), but the House budget bill also includes alarming language that would prevent any federal funds from reaching any charter school ‘that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.'”

Bush thinks that the U.S. Department of Education ought to be allowed to make grants to charter schools whose operators are, in many cases, collecting huge profits at the expense of our tax dollars and at the expense of children whose education programming is reduced to ensure operators can make a profit. I guess he isn’t bothered by the charter management companies that have managed to negotiate sweeps contracts that gobble up more than 90 percent of the state and federal operating dollars and manage the school without transparency.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) just published a major report, Chartered for Profit, that details how all this works. Recently NPE’s executive director, Carol Burris was interviewed about the extent of the problem: “The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services. But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

In his recent commentary, Bush buries his defense of for-profit charter school management companies near the end of an article packed with tired, meaningless rhetoric. He begins by alleging that our system of public schools derives from an “outdated mentality”—a factory model dating from the 1890s that won’t work in the “21st century economy (which) is vastly different.” I guess he means that public schools haven’t kept up with the times, or maybe he is implying that something is wrong with what kids are learning in public schools.  When he explains that public schools serve 56.6 million students and charter schools serve 3.3 million students, one wonders why he fails to recognize that investing federal dollars to improve the nation’s public schools would be the best strategy for serving the mass of America’s students. After all, in a well known study, economist Gordon Lafer has explained how charter schools in just one school district, Oakland, California, suck $57.3 million every year out of the public schools that serve the majority of Oakland’s children and adolescents.

Next, Bush references a litany of studies, based, he says, mostly on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  He claims this research proves that charters are better academically. Without specific references, it is hard to know which studies he is citing, although he does name one source—from the University of Arkansas, where the Department of Education Reform is a think tank funded by the Walton Foundation.

In her recent book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch, who served for several years on the NAEP Governing Board, refutes Bush’s argument that charter schools are academically superior: “Charter schools on average get about the same results when they enroll the same demographic groups of students. Those charter schools that report outstanding test scores typically have high rates of attrition and do not enroll the most difficult to educate students, such as English language learners and students with disabilities. Charters have the freedom to write their own rules about suspensions and discipline and some have used this freedom to push out the students they don’t want, those who are discipline problems, and those who can’t meet the school’s academic demands, who then return to public schools.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 135)

Next, in an argument that would be funny if it were not so sad, Bush claims that critics of for-profit charter schools are captives of the money-grubbing teachers unions. “(U)nions fear that choice will lead to fewer students attending schools that fund their private coffers… It’s a feedback loop without a soul.”

And finally, Jeb Bush explains that, by defunding for-profit charter schools, members of the House of Representatives want to eliminate federal support for the education of “millions of students, especially our nation’s special-needs students who qualify for funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and our students living in poverty.” Has Bush not read President Biden’s budget proposal, whose public school investments are copied in the House of Representative’s proposed budget resolution? The President and the House Appropriations Committee propose to increase funding for wraparound Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million, double Title I funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children, and significantly increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, now called ExcelinEd, have been advocating for charter schools and school privatization for years. To promote these very ideas, Bush and ExcelinEd spawned Chiefs for Change (which has since become an independent organization) in order to promote school privatization and corporate school accountability among state school superintendents and commissioners and local school superintendents.

Betraying his long alliance with our former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, Bush condemns public schools because, he writes, they are a system which is not designed to serve individual students. The move to privatize public education is merely an expression today’s wave of libertarian individualism (at public expense) and consumerist, market-place thinking.

It is useful to keep in mind the warning of the late political theorist Benjamin Barber: “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)

The Same People Now Trying to Undermine Democratic Elections Have Been Trying for 30 Years to Privatize Public Schools

The players are the very same. For decades they’ve been coming for our public schools. Now they are coming for the democratic process itself by trying to undermine fair elections.

Jane Mayer’s article in the July 9, 2021 New Yorker, The Big Money Behind the Big Lie, begins: “Trump’s attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich conservatives determined to win at all costs.” Mayer uncovers the players behind the Arizona Senate’s demand for an audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. They include the very same people who have worked systematically over the past 30 years to privatize and undermine our American system of public education.

On the significance of this year’s election audit in Phoenix—an election audit conducted by a questionable private contractor—Mayer quotes Ralph Neas, who formerly led the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and later People for the American Way: “The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised….”

Mayer continues: “Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud., and… they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”

Mayer names some of the organizations involved in the attack on the integrity of last year’s election: the Heritage Foundation; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a corporate funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislatures; the Federalist Society; the Judicial Education Project, “which has rebranded itself as the Honest Election Project”; and FreedomWorks. Here is what all these groups have in common: “They have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules…. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years.”

What is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and where might we have heard of these people before? Mayer provides some history: “The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence. It has funded conservative projects ranging from school-choice initiatives to the controversial scholarship of Charles Murray, the co-author of the 1994 book, The Bell Curve.”

A long time ago, in the early 1990s, the Bradley Foundation was a major force behind the first school vouchers in the United States—in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bradley Foundation funded the state’s defense against a legal challenge to the program and also paid for mounting an enormous public relations campaign behind school vouchers. In 2003, People for the American Way explored the sudden appearance of a new advocacy group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO): “BAEO seemed to come out of nowhere with a series of compelling television ads featuring African-American parents talking about the importance of school choice… BAEO bills itself as a coalition of up-and-coming leaders working within the African American community.  But a closer look shows that BAEO has been bankrolled by a small number of right-wing foundations… It is not surprising that BAEO is headquartered in Milwaukee. Wisconsin has been the linchpin of the voucher movement for over a decade and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation has been at the center of the action…  The Bradley Foundation played a key role when the Milwaukee voucher program came under legal challenge for violating the separation of church and state… Bradley gave the state of Wisconsin $350,000 to pay for the work that Kenneth Starr… and his firm… did to defend the voucher program before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

In a 2017 investigation for Madison Wisconsin’s Cap Times, Mary Bottari comments on the outrageous irony that the Bradley Foundation, despite its history of giving to far-right political causes, continues to be designated by the IRS as a charitable nonprofit: “The Bradley Foundation, organized as a tax-exempt ‘charitable’ foundation under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an ‘infrastructure’ on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council is another of the major players Jane Mayer identifies behind today’s outrageous attack on the authenticity of the 2020 election. The Center for Media and Democracy lists ALEC as a regular and significant recipient of operating grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Common Cause has had a long running whistle-blower complaint lodged against ALEC because, while it is also identified for tax purposes by the IRS as a “charitable” nonprofit, ALEC is a bill mill with a long history of churning out model school voucher bills along with other far-right projects. ALEC’s Education Task Force regularly drafts and circulates model school privatization bills, which are written as templates to be introduced in any state legislature after state-specific details are inserted.

The Center for Media and Democracy traces ALEC’s direct involvement in 1990 with the birth of the Milwaukee school voucher program: “Decades ago, ALEC targeted Wisconsin as a test case for their agenda. Tommy Thompson, who served as a state legislator from 1966-1987 and then as governor for a record 14 years, was an early ALEC member and supporter… It is now apparent that Thompson was the enthusiastic frontman for a slew of ALEC ideas and legislation — most famously ‘Welfare to Work’ and ‘School Choice.’ In 1990, Milwaukee’s school voucher program for low-income children was the first in the nation, the camel’s nose under the tent for a long-term agenda with the ultimate goal being the privatization of public schools.”

In this week’s New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer mentions another player in this year’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election through the right-wing Maricopa County election audit: Shawnna Bolick.  Bolick is currently an Arizona state representative from Phoenix; she is also running for Arizona secretary of state.  Although Mayor doesn’t trace this history, Shawnna Bolick has family ties to the far-right promotion of school vouchers back in the 1990s.

Mayer leaves out the story of Shawnna Bolick’s husband, Clint Bolick.  In May of 2000, PBS Frontline produced a special on The Battle Over School Choice, which featured an interview with Clint Bolick, along with this introduction: “Bolick is a co-founder and Director of Litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice, begun in 1991 as the ‘nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm’ and as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Institute for Justice represents parents and children in various legal cases across the country in support of school choice, including the Cleveland, Ohio lawsuit regarding a publicly funded scholarship program.”

In the interview, Clint Bolick explains: “We have been involved in the school choice battle since we opened our doors in 1991…. The very first court battle was in the spring of 1990, when the first school choice program was passed in Milwaukee. It was a tiny program that evoked a tremendous response from the educational bureaucracy, in the form of a lawsuit and an onslaught of regulations. We represented the parents and children defending the program and challenging the regulations.  And on the first day of school in the year 1990, we were successful.”

In that interview in 2000, Clint Bolick speculated that a case to overturn the “Cleveland Scholarship” voucher program would rise to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring of 2002, Bolick served as chief litigator in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, defending Ohio’s right to spend tax dollars for tuition vouchers to be used in private schools that include religious education. He argued that, “as long as a program gives parents the choice of where to send their kids and does not create any sort of financial incentive for them to do so,” vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.  In June of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of allowing the Cleveland Scholarship Plan to proceed.

Now in 2021, Shawnna Bolick, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—along with many of the groups who have been recipients of Bradley Foundation grants—are working to undermine the democratic process itself by attacking what courts have already declared  to be a fair election in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Jane Mayor describes the troubling role of dark money: “It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries.”

In his history of the American battle over protecting the right to public education, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black describes the fall of Reconstruction after 1876 as the period when states across the former Confederacy attacked the two institutions essential for democracy:  “The new constitutional agenda was two-pronged: disenfranchise black voters and segregate and underfund public schools.” (p. 139)  For the past three decades, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, ALEC, The Institute for Justice and their allies have been pursuing a similar attack on the same two institutions—the right to vote and the public schools that prepare children to become citizens—which the Founders understand as an essential foundation for democracy.

Why Disciplined Messaging on Public School Policy Is So Important

In some states, the new school year has already begun, the COVID Delta Variant is surging, and already everybody is worrying, and legitimately so, about whether and how public schools will reopen. But that is not really the deepest concern for many of us who care about the future of public schools.

Certainly far-right ideologues investing millions of dollars to push corporate school reform and promote school privatization are messaging their own agenda instead of focusing on whether or not schools reopen in person or whether students and/or teachers are required to vaccinate or wear masks. Newspapers, many of which are losing their education reporters to collapsing advertising budgets, have pretty much opted for the obvious topic—school reopening and masking requirements.  You can be sure, however, that ALEC is instead doggedly promoting the expansion of vouchers as its members lobby inside state legislatures, and Nina Rees, who leads the National Association of Public Charter Schools, is ignoring the effects of COVID-19 while she loudly demands that Congress continue to fund charter schools operated by for-profit charter management companies.

Message discipline is a priority for the far right, and, when Betsy DeVos was Trump’s education secretary, her consistent framing was, in one respect, a plus for public school advocates. She was the perfect foil we could attack week after week as she harangued against “government schools,” rejected the need for a “system” of education, and enthused about serving the needs of individual children and catering to the taste of individual parents. Not once did DeVos acknowledge the benefit of public schooling as the center of the social contract.

We could thank Betsy DeVos for keeping us on message, but Chris Lubienski of Indiana University, Amanda Potterson of the University of Kentucky, and Joel Malin of Miami University in Ohio worry about the longer term impact of the language of the far fight on public education policy. These education policy researchers remind us: “Language shapes the ways we think and feel about ourselves and others, institutions such as our schools, and (more generally) about our world. As applied to education policy, it matters whether our nation’s public schools are described as such, or if instead they are framed as ‘failing government schools,’ like they were by President Trump in his 2020 State of the Union Address. Accepting this truth about the power of language holds many implications. So what happens when language is used to build up narratives that contradict accumulating evidence? Can language reconfigure our perceptions of schools in ways that re-orient their purpose?  More specifically, we assert that disparaging language about our schools unhelpfully limits our policy imaginations. Likewise, we show how casting schools as ‘businesses’— and parents as ‘customers’—shapes commonsensical assumptions about the purposes of public schools, but ignores much of the research evidence about how public schools function…  Regarding this language and imagery, for educational leaders and community stakeholders, we encourage vigilant critical analysis of the language used regarding education.”

Certainly under President Biden, the situation for public schools has improved. Biden has articulated support for public schools and public school teachers. And apart from the language he uses, he has made a lot more federal funding available through COVID-relief.  He has promoted—in his FY22 federal budget proposal—investing in Title I with significantly more money for schools in America’s poorest communities, addressing the federal government’s decades-old failure to fund the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and radically expanding federal investment in wraparound Full Service Community Schools.  But Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Education Secretary, has failed to use language to frame a well conceptualized public school agenda. So far, he has chosen not to speak much at all about the past 20 years of corporate, high-stakes-test-based school accountability.

In the absence of vision from Secretary Cardona and with the rapid decline of sufficient exploration of the key issues in the press, it seems important to devote some serious attention to framing a disciplined set of principles. Lubienski, Potterson, and Malin’s article challenged me clearly to name the principles by which I frame this blog. That way, I’ll be able to check back every week or so to be sure I’m staying on-message.

Here are five principles which, I believe, make up the foundation of this blog.

  1. An equitable and comprehensive system of public schools—publicly operated and regulated by law—is essential for protecting the right of every child to appropriate and equitable services and for ensuring an educated public.
  2. School privatization threatens our public schools, threatens educational equity, and threatens who we are as a nation. No state can afford to support three education sectors—traditional public schools, charter schools, and publicly funded private schools.
  3. Rejecting high-stakes, test-based public school accountability is essential for the future of public education. High-stakes testing has narrowed and undermined what our teachers can do in America’s classrooms, undermined the reputation of public schools and public school teachers, driven privatization and public school closures, exacerbated racial and economic segregation, and undermined the future of children and adolescents living in concentrated poverty.
  4. Our society must ameliorate the effects of past and ongoing racial and economic injustice and aggressively support the public schools that serve our nation’s poorest children.
  5. Public school funding across America’s schools is urgently important. Taxation ought to be progressive and must raise enough money to pay for essential basic services including small classes and necessities like libraries and music and art programs. State and federal funding must be distributed equitably to compensate for the alarming disparities in local taxing capacity across America’s public school districts.

Two new books have pointed to the severity of today’s attack on public education even as the Biden administration has begun to turn more attention to the needs of public schools and away from the relentless Trump/DeVos attack. This winter and spring an alarming number of bills were introduced across the state legislatures to expand vouchers, and tiny clauses were hidden in state budgets to divert public revenue out of the public schools and into charter schools and an array of voucher and neo-voucher programs.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire argue: “(T)he present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new threat, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution.  An increasingly potent network of conservative state and federal elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks, all backed by deep-pocketed funders, has aligned behind a vision of a radical reinvention.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. xix)

In Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores our nation’s history of public education as it is reflected in our founding documents and the fifty state constitutions, and as legal attacks have forced the courts to continue to explore how these documents protect  public schooling and students’ rights as our nation’s promises have been threatened.  Black worries that today’s threats are different in character:  “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

What the New Ohio Budget and School Funding Plan Will Mean for Public Schools

The FY 2022-2023 Ohio budget is different than most biennial state budgets because folded into it is a new public school funding formula, developed over more than three years and adopted previously by the Ohio House but never enacted by the Ohio Senate.  For those of you who worry about how public schools will fare under the new Ohio budget, the expert to consult is Howard Fleeter. In this post, I’ll summarize Fleeter’s analysis: FY22-23 State Budget Recap: Ohio’s New School Funding Formula, Voucher Changes and (yes, another round of) Income Tax Reductions.

Howard Fleeter is Ohio’s education funding expert. He has served Ohio’s education advocacy community through the Ohio Education Policy Institute (OEPI), since its inception in 1997. Fleeter regularly provides analysis for the Hannah News Service in a newsletter known as On the Money. In Cleveland, On the Money is available for library card holders in the research databases at the Cleveland Public Library, but the publication is not even available in Clevenet member branch libraries. Sadly On the Money is paywalled, which means you’ll have to trust me to summarize Fleeter’s conclusions.

Warning: In Fleeter’s new piece you cannot learn the answer to your primary question: How will my own school district fare during the upcoming biennium and beyond? And you won’t find the answer to your other urgent question: How long can my district put off going to the ballot to try pass yet another local levy?  On the other hand, Fleeter explains clearly and lucidly how the new budget and school funding plan will work.

Fleeter identifies the two essential components of Ohio’s school funding formula as being adequate school funding and the equitable distribution of the state’s contribution to the formula.

How the New Budget Addresses the Need for Adequate School Funding

The first problem the new formula must address is the old formula’s incapacity to measure how much money Ohio’s 610 school districts need: “Ohio’s most recent school funding formula, in place from FY14-FY19, did not employ any methodology for determining the base cost amount.”  The base cost is the formula’s calculation of the amount of combined state and local funding needed  to educate each of our state’s roughly 1.7 million children and adolescents. Fleeter continues: “Instead, the legislature simply set the per pupil amounts based on how much money they chose to allocate to K-12 education, an approach that the Supreme Court rejected over and over in the DeRolph case. In FY19 this amount was set at $6,200 per pupil…. The House funding plan (whose formula for base cost was adopted in the final budget) utilized an inputs-based approach to adequacy which resulted in an average base cost amount of roughly $7,200 per pupil, nearly 20% higher than the FY 19 figure…”  Fleeter credits Ohio’s new 2021 formula with the successful “development of an inputs-based methodology for determining the per-pupil base cost” for the first time since FY11.

What about other state investments beyond base cost? Unlike the Ohio Senate, the Ohio House in its proposed budget actually used up-to-date cost figures to determine how much school districts need for added categorical funding for students with disabilities, disadvantaged students, career-tech students, English language learners and gifted students. Sadly, although the House used accurate data, Fleeter reports that the House version of the budget called for $0 increase in disadvantage aid in FY 22 and only 1/7th of the scheduled increase in FY23.”  And, “An economically disadvantaged student cost study included in the House version of the budget was removed in the final version….”  The cost study, eliminated in negotiations with the Senate, was considered essential for identifying all the ways school districts should be providing additional support for students in communities where poverty is concentrated.

One positive: The old formula “included a ‘gain cap’ provision which limited annual increases in state funding to a pre-determined maximum percentage,” but in the new budget, “The much-despised gain cap has finally been eliminated.”  The gain cap problem affected growing school districts, which deserve additional per-pupil state dollars when more and more students move into the community. This problem in the old formula had frozen state funding under a gain cap for 163 of the state’s 610 districts.  The final budget does protect a transitional hold-harmless guarantee for districts whose enrollment is falling.

Another positive:  In the new budget the state “directly funds” vouchers and charter schools out of the state budget. Every time students leave for charter schools or take vouchers to a private school, the school district will no longer see a per-pupil charter school fee and the cost of each private school voucher extracted right out of the local school district budget. Fleeter writes: “This change has been 20 years overdue and brings Ohio in line with how most other states fund charter schools and voucher programs.”

One potential problem. The new budget folds an important budget line from the FY21-FY22 budget, Governor Mike DeWine’s Student Wellness and Success Program, into the current budget’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid without additional funding. This program is “intended to provide resources to address nonacademic barriers to student success, including mental health services, ‘wraparound services’ such as dental, vision, and medical care, family engagement and support services, and after school programs and mentoring.” Fleeter explains that the change “raises questions as to whether this funding stream will ultimately be spent on new initiatives to help reduce non-academic barriers to student success (as envisioned by Governor DeWine) or will simply be absorbed into the spending that districts are already incurring.”

How the New Budget Addresses the Need for More Equitably Distributed School Funding

The FY22-FY23 budget introduces a new mechanism for calculating each school district’s capacity to raise the local portion of school funding: “The state and local share mechanism is by far the single most important driver of equity in Ohio’s school funding formula. Property wealth has traditionally been the basis for the state/local share calculation because it is a reflection of school districts’ varying local tax revenue capacity. However, it is essential that the income level of school district residents also be included because this is a reflection of the ‘ability-to-pay’ of district residents. Ability-to-pay is important in Ohio because the heavy reliance on school levies as a result of HB 920 (the state’s local property tax freeze law) means that districts with lower income residents are less able to tap into whatever tax capacity they have by approving local levies.”

The new state budget employs “an income factor which adjusts the local share downward (and the state share upward) in school districts with income levels below the statewide median income and does the reverse in districts with income levels above the statewide median income. The most current data available is used to make this calculation.” Fortunately the final state budget incorporates the House version of the new local share calculation. The Senate budget “did not update the property value and income data, continuing to use 2014, 2015, and 2016 property value data and 2013, 2014, and 2015 income data.  Had the Senate’s funding formula been implemented in FY22 and FY23, the underlying data would have been 10 years old when it was updated in FY24 and FY25, which would have likely caused serious funding disruptions for many school districts.”

One Huge Problem with the New School Funding Formula

The final FY22-FY23 state budget school funding plan was a compromise between the House version built around the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan and a new and much cheaper Senate proposal.  Although many of the mechanisms of the House Fair School Funding Plan were finally incorporated into the budget, the plan’s full six-year phase-in didn’t make it.

Fleeter writes: “The most significant concern with regard to Ohio’s new school funding formula is that HB110 (the final budget) specifies that the funding changes described above are only funded for the FY22 and FY23 school years. The funding formula developed by the Cupp-Patterson workgroup… called for a 6-year phase-in period. With the exception of Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid… increases in all funding components are correspondingly phased in at a rate of 16.7% in FY22 and 33.3% in FY23.  However, under HB 110, there is no language which outlines further funding phase-ins in FY24 and beyond.”

The Legislature’s added failure to phase in the 100% increase in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid in FY22, as the House had proposed, and its failure to fund the House’s proposed cost study of the needs of economically disadvantaged students will only exacerbate the threat that the new formula once again will fall far behind what students need. There is good reason to fear that despite the best intentions of the legislators and experts who developed the Fair School Funding Plan over more than three years, this budget, will fail to address the needs of the state’s poorest children and will, as time passes, perpetuate long-running inequity.

One more thing… All the Ways the Legislature Expanded EdChoice Vouchers

The leadership in the Ohio Senate is devoted to expanding school privatization, and EdChoice vouchers are one place where the Ohio Senate left a big mark on the new state budget.  In his report last week, Fleeter simply lists all the ways the Legislature used the new FY22-FY23 budget to expand the state’s investment in one of its largest school voucher programs—EdChoice. The size of each K-8 voucher will grow from $4,650 to $5,500 and for each high school voucher from $6,000 to $7,500.  The legislature altogether eliminated “the cap on the number of EdChoice vouchers… which had previously been set at 60,000.” EdChoice vouchers are for children in the attendance area of a school on an eligibility list based on academic performance, but in the new budget all siblings of students who currently have a voucher are available wherever they live.  Students will also be eligible for EdChoice if they live in the attendance area of a public school that ranks in the lowest 20 percent on the State School Report Card Performance Index.  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now “a rolling window with no closing date.”

And finally and most alarming, the new budget has begun “phasing out the requirement that students must have attended a public school in the year prior to qualifying for an EdChoice voucher. “This criteria had already applied to high school students (including incoming 9th graders) and will now be extended over a 4 year period to include K-8th grade students. By the FY26 school year no student would be required to have attended a public school in the year prior in order to be eligible to receive an EdChoice voucher.”

With the Legislature’s having reduced myriad limitations on eligibility for EdChoice vouchers, eliminating the cap, and making the application process open ended, one wonders how the overall budget for this program can possibly be anticipated or controlled.

That’s why, the Columbus Dispatch’s Grace Deng reports: “A coalition of 75 Ohio public school districts planning to sue the state over the EdChoice school voucher program said Monday the newly enacted state budget was an ‘assault’ on public schools.”

Charter Schools: The Vision of their Founders vs. Today’s Reality

Charter school operators and advocates persistently brand charter schools as “public charter schools” even though charter schools are, by definition, always privately managed. However, operation is paid for with tax dollars appropriated by 44 of the state legislatures along with some federal investment and the diversion of school district dollars.

The people who proposed the idea of charter schools 30 years ago imagined how these schools would work and what would be the widespread result for children. What if we compare what the founders of charter schools imagined with today’s reality?

The Thomas Fordham Institute is a sponsor of charter schools and one of the nation’s prominent cheerleaders for these institutions. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute and Bruno Manno, an emeritus member of Fordham’s board and an advisor to the Walton Foundation, recently celebrated the history of charter schools on their 30th anniversary.  Finn and Manno praise Ted Kolderie, who enthused about charter schools in a 1990 report for the Minnesota Center for Policy Studies. Describing Kolderie as “arguably the foremost theoretician of chartering,” Finn and Manno quote his report:

“(O)ur system of public education is a bad system. It is terribly inequitable. It does not meet the nation’s needs. It exploits teachers’ altruism. It hurts kids. Instead of blaming people…we need to fix the system [and] organize public education in America on a new basis. The proposal outlined in this report is designed to introduce the dynamics of choice, competition and innovation into America’s public school system. How can we use the powerful idea of choice to improve our schools while retaining the essential purposes of public education? This report proposes a simple yet radical answer: allowing enterprising people—including teachers and other educators—to… create new public schools, and ultimately a new system of public education, [by having] the states…simply withdraw the local districts’ exclusive franchise to own and operate public schools. [We need to undertake] divestiture, or allowing the districts to get out of running and operating public schools altogether.”

Now, 30 years later, Finn and Manno brag about what they believe are charter schools’ strengths:

  • “The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools.”
  • “Chartering has… pioneered new forms of governance for public education, including statewide Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools….”
  • “Other charter-inspired governance models include ‘portfolio’ districts’… where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations…”

They conclude: “Through a combination of choice, competition, and innovation, chartering has bettered the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students, thereby reducing inequality, widening opportunity, strengthening parents, and enhancing civil society.  These are remarkable accomplishments for a thirty-year period, worth protecting and cultivating… When dealing with so many complex institutions across so many different jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation were sure to be profound.  And when what’s being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as American public schooling, these trials are even greater.”

Finn and Manno share a number of reforms they would like to see in charter schools: more attention to authorizing and quality control, need for more funding, and insufficient autonomy.  While they allege that the best charters improve student achievement, they don’t explore the problems with the academic studies they cite.  Neither do they discuss how few “best” charters there are in a sector where charter schools differ from each other and run the gamut of quality. They admit that, “charter promoters have sometimes been naive, occasionally self-interested, and often set in their ways.”

Now that charter schools have been around for 30 years, however, there is significant research demonstrating a whole range of problems on the ground, problems which Kolderie never imagined and which Finn and Manno neglect to mention.

First is the role of money and the absence of sufficient regulation in a sector which has been invaded by for-profit management and where 44 state legislatures, who are subject to lavish lobbying by charter sponsors and advocates, have failed to provide adequate oversight. After all, Kolderie defined  the very purpose of charter schools as escaping the constraints of public bureaucracy.  Jacobin Magazine published a recent interview with, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, which recently published a report, Chartered for Profit Jacobin‘s reporter asked Burris how it is that so many charter schools—which state laws require to be sponsored by and operated as nonprofit organizations—have become the source of massive profits their operators.  Here is her reply:

“The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services.  But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

It is worth pointing out the irony that we would all be shocked if we discovered the principal of our public high school or our school district’s superintendent profiting from our tax dollars. While such activity is illegal in public schools, money in the charter school sector is handled very differently. Burris explains: “Individuals can become very wealthy if they run charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Eva Moskowitz, who’s in charge of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City… pulls down a salary of nearly $1 million a year.  By comparison, the New York City public schools chancellor makes about $250,000 a year.” Burris continues: “A lot of this is possible simply because there’s so little oversight.  I was a public school teacher and then a high school principal.  Purchases had to go out to bid, and everything was very transparent.  I couldn’t contract with my Uncle Louie’s furniture company to buy desks. But you can in the charter school world… The charter school lobby says that this model is necessary for innovation. But what is it about the ability to commit fraud and avoid transparency that helps you to be more innovative?  The innovation that we’re seeing too often, sadly, is criminal manipulation.”

Second is the problem that charter schools are parasites on the public school districts where they are located. In some states, as was the case until recently in Ohio, school districts have to pay an additional charter school tuition fee right out of their own budget when children leave for a charter school.  But even in states where public school districts merely lose the state’s per-pupil basic aid when each child leaves, the school district suffers financially.  In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts…  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.” At the same time, charter schools are less likely to enroll students with expensive special needs, which concentrates children who need expensive extra investment in their education in district public schools.

Third, neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.  For example, New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools has established a reputation for a regimented, no-excuses school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.  In March, Success Academies was fined $2.4 million by a federal district court for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.”

And especially in the South, charter schools have too often violated students’ rights by increasing racial segregation. A 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University reported:  “(W)e find that the state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time. In addition, during the period, individual charter schools have become increasingly racially imbalanced, in the sense that some are serving primarily minority students and others are serving primarily white students.”

Thirty years after the first charter school in Minnesota, there is finally some support in Congress to begin reining in some of the most outrageous for-profit charter chains. The House Budget Resolution would disqualify charter schools managed for-profit from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.

Chester Finn and Bruno Manno have been promoting the same lies for decades. Advocates need to continue to push hard to force the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and legislators across the states to see what’s wrong with the glossy ideology that has blinded so many.

Why We Need to Remember to Name the PUBLIC in Public Education

Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning, published in the autumn of 2020, is essential reading for all of us who care about public schooling. Beginning with the educational vision of the founders of our nation who understood public education as the center of the social contract, the book is a history of the institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to form citizens who will actively participate in our democratic experiment. Black’s book is hopeful about our history; he traces how the meaning of the guarantee of public education as a right for every child has become more inclusive in the over two hundred years since our nation’s founding—for the children of former slaves, for disabled children, for American Indians, and for immigrants. Those who conceptualized a system of public schools did not view education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual child. Why does it matter that our system of education in the United States is public—publicly owned, publicly governed and operated, publicly funded, and protected by law?

As Derek Black winds down his history of the impact of Reconstruction on the states’ constitutional promise of public schooling, the threats to equal access for all during Jim Crow, the long fight for civil rights protections against racial segregation, and decades of lawsuits brought to demand that state supreme courts protect adequate and equitable public school funding, he muses about today’s threats to our public system of schooling:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil right movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.  If it comes down to it, can public education persevere once again, or is it something different this time?” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

The threat today is widespread school privatization—the transformation of public schooling in many places into a school choice marketplace at public expense. As we watch this scenario play out, it is clear that meager state budgets cannot sustain three education sectors: a public sector, a charter school sector, and widespread public funding for vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Black writes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures… 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… (S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states.  Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

I thought about Black’s concerns on Friday as I read a briefing fact sheet released by the White House: How the Biden-Harris Administration Is Advancing Educational Equity.  This is, I think, intended as the framing document many have been waiting for.  President Biden and his Education Secretary Miguel Cardona filled the American Rescue COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March with funding to support our public schools, and the President’s proposed FY22 budget would, if successfully negotiated through Congress, significantly increase funding.  The briefing fact sheet frames all this as an equity agenda:

“For too many Americans—including students of color, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ students, students from low-income families, and other underserved students—the promise of a high-quality education has gone unfulfilled for generations… Dramatically unequal funding between school districts means some children learn in gleaming new classrooms, while students just down the road navigate unsafe and rundown facilities. Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, high-poverty school districts struggle to attract certified staff and experienced educators.  And students of color and children with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of school discipline that removes them from the classroom, with lasting consequences. With 53 percent of our public school students now students of color, addressing these disparities is critical for not only all our children, but for our nation’s collective health, happiness, and economic security.  Consistent with the President’s Executive Order, the Administration is committed to advancing educational equity for every child—so that schools and students not only recover from the pandemic, but Build Back Better.”

In Friday’s fact sheet, the Biden White House names many of its progressive and worthy proposals to fund education reform—providing high-quality universal early childhood education and pre-school, increasing access to affordable child care, addressing the current shortage of well-prepared teachers, upgrading school facilities long deemed deteriorating in too many communities, investing $20 billion in Title I schools and incentivizing states to improve school funding equity, radically expanding the number of Full Service Community Schools, increasing access to broadband in underserved communities, and increasing funding for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by $2.6 billion.

Of course, Congress will have to agree to fund this needed investment.  It is definitely not a sure thing, but Biden and Cardona’s proposal deserves credit for going to the heart of the gaping inequality across America’s public schools.  The document does speak directly to issues in America’s public schools, the institutions that continue to serve around 90 percent of our nation’s children and adolescents.

There is something not quite right, however, in the narrative frame of the document, which consistently addresses equity in “education,” but not equity in “public education.” In what I compressed into four single-spaced pages, I find the word “public” only a handful of times. Perhaps this is mere carelessness, but I don’t think so. The Biden Administration has chosen not to address what public school parents are watching all over the country as their public schools run short of money for the basics, and what we all watched during the recent state budget debates when legislatures slipped more and more public dollars to charter schools and vouchers.

The framing of this document is consistent with another of the administration’s recent choices. While, in its FY 22 budget resolution, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to ban funding from the federal Charter Schools Program for charter schools operated by the huge, for-profit Charter Management Organizations, the President’s FY 22 budget proposal is silent on this much needed reform at the same time the U.S. Senate is receiving massive pressure from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others in the well-funded charter school lobby.  (It is worth noting here that charter school supporters always do remember to frame their schools as “public” even though charter schools are always privately operated). President Biden and Secretary Cardona need to weigh in on behalf of the public schools against any form of for-private educational contracting.

By failing to confront the impact of ever expanding school privatization at public expense, the Biden White House and Department of Education have, perhaps understandably, chosen to avoid controversy. But by neglecting to name and confront the impact of the enormous problem of school privatization, the administration is tacitly supporting what is happening across the states.

Here is Derek Black’s response: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised.  But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)

Black continues: “But it is not just what today’s leaders have said and done. Also telling is what they haven’t said. Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they miss is that charters and vouchers… involve an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 233)