School Vouchers are One of the Ways Privatization Is Undermining Our Society

Private school tuition vouchers are a big deal in Ohio right now. 100 school districts filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the rapidly growing statewide EdChoice Voucher Program is unconstitutional because it diverts tax dollars from the public schools which desperately need the money for educating the state’s 1.8 million public school students and because the voucher program has accelerated racial segregation.

The expansion of school vouchers always loomed as former U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s primary cause. Congress managed to avoid passing her proposed federal $5 billion tuition tax credit Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program despite that every year for four years she tried to insert this program into the federal education budget. But today many of the state legislatures are growing voucher programs or starting new voucher initiatives.

Here in Ohio, a professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Stitzlein explained last week why she thinks giving parents marketplace choices about their children’s schooling is dangerous for the rest of us: “Voucher programs hand over decision-making power solely to guardians of school-aged children, who compose less than a quarter of American adults. These guardians then independently decide where to spend a taxpayer-funded voucher. Often, they look for schools that already affirm their particular worldview or personal wishes for their child. This strips our communities of deliberation about what we want from our schools and what we desire for children collectively. The public loses the opportunity for voice and influence over how it spends public dollars… And because private schools are not required to accept all students or to provide equitable services to all children, communities lose the ability to demand fair educational opportunities without discrimination toward any child.”

The continuing momentum across the state legislatures for private school tuition vouchers is only one aspect of the movement toward privatization of public life. In a new book, The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian examine school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools as merely one strand of a movement that has also included attempts to privatize healthcare, water, transportation, environmental policy, the criminal justice system, Social Security, public libraries, and higher education. Cohen and Mikaelian consider the following questions regarding how growing privatization threatens our democracy .

Why should citizens be paying closer attention to growing privatization? “Understanding privatization means understanding that it is first and foremost a political strategy… (B)ut it has also become a grab for billions of dollars in contracts and fees. In the years since it sprang from the mind of Milton Friedman as a way to undercut government ‘monopoly,’ it has also become a way for profiteers to tap into the $7 trillion of public revenue… spent by local, state, and federal government agencies each year and carve out a piece (sometimes a very big piece) for themselves.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 21).

What is the definition of ‘privatization’?  “Many define privatization as simply the outsourcing of a good or a service to a private company, but it is much more than that… Privatization is the transfer of control over public goods to private hands. Sometimes this happens during procurement—the outsourcing of public services to a private company. In other cases it’s due to austerity—reducing public funding of a vital public good and letting private options take over. Or it can happen through deregulation—when we eliminate or fail to enforce public control…. In all these ways, privatization is a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 4-5)

What are public goods and who gets to define them?  “Most economics textbooks, and many economists, define public goods in pretty strict terms: they are things that are nonexcludable (meaning that it’s either impossible or impractical to prevent people from using them) and nonrivalrous (meaning that one person using them does not take away from another person’s use).”  Cohen and Mikaelian, however, believe that definition is incomplete: “In a democratic society public goods should not be defined by the market. They should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… Clearly, it is possible to exclude some people from schools… But we decided long ago that this would not happen at K-12 public schools.  We could make all our roads exclusive, but we decided that it would be better for both the economy and each of us individually if the public controlled most roads, paid for them, and permitted access.” (The Privatization of Everything,  pp. 5-6)

Who is responsible for protecting the public?  “In a democracy, it is the public’s job—not the market’s—to decide what to cede to the private sphere… In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine)…. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 7)

How can a responsible public protect public goods?  “That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. Public control is exercised in different ways; the public tool kit includes establishing public-goods standards for public money spent on procurement, providing public services, and creating regulations and safeguards for public goods….  What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them…. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 8)

What is the difference between citizens and consumers?  “We are both citizens and consumers, but privatization encourages us to approach public goods merely as a shopper while convincing us to forget that fellow citizens need that public good too…  As consumers, our only responsibility is to ourselves. As consumers, we promote exclusions, but at the same time we are excluded. We do not have power over what is given to us; we have no right to expect a voice in what choices we have. Private corporations decide for us… (F)or things that we value both for ourselves and for the common good—clean water, education, public health, safe roads and bridges—let’s approach these as citizens of a democracy, as co-creators of public goods… as part of something larger and not merely as isolated individuals, and as a people defined by our responsibilities rather than merely by our desires.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 14)

What is the consequence of failing to protect the public from rampant privatization?  “Privatization is not just about money or about who provides what service; privatization is about values, about whether we are committed to promoting the general welfare as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution…. Privatization… facilitates the upward transfer of wealth, exacerbates inequality, creates powerful interests, separates us from each other, and segregates us by race and class… Reclaiming public goods… is about who we are and what we believe.” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 17-18)

Cohen and Mikaelian conclude: “Our definition of public good boils down to a few simple ideas. Public goods are things we all benefit from even if we don’t personally use them, such as education, public transportation, the safety net, and the justice system. They are the things that are essential for life, including water and clean air. They are things that can make such broad and fundamental improvements to our quality of life that no one should be excluded… They are the things that recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence and make us a healthier, fairer, more compassionate and more democratic nation.” (The Privatization of Everything, p. 284)

Yesterday morning, when I thought this post was complete, I happened upon this provocative twitter thread from Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider considers several other ways the privatization of education undermines the public good:

“The vision of schools as businesses is currently ascendant. That is, schools should respond to what their customers want. I have a few major concerns about this.

  • “First, businesses respond to individuals, because individuals foot the bill. Public schools are publicly funded. Consequently, they need to advance the public interest. Hard as it may be to swallow, sometimes our own desires don’t always perfectly align with the public good.
  • “Second… Consider how many people in a typical business ‘make something, vs. how many play supporting roles.  Almost everyone in a school is on the ‘making’ side. That is, they’re teachers. These are very lean organizations.
  • “Third schools are not simple experience goods. I know immediately what I think of my store-bought coffee or my new headphones. I can offer very clear feedback. but we want a million things from schools. And results often take years to fully understand.
  • “Compounding the previous point is the issue of attribution. If I like my coffee, I can thank the barista. But if my kid is thriving in school, who gets credit? The teacher? Her friends? Me and her mom? Her brain? Last year’s teacher?
  • “(T)here’s also the principal-agent problem…. In schools, the ‘customer’ is… who? The student, right? But the person demanding and deciding is often the parent/guardian. That’s not ideal.
  • “(I)f we all operate as consumers, then we are going to elevate one purpose of schools above all others—the drive to secure for our own kids an advantage over everyone else. But that’s not what schools are designed to do.
  • “If schools are businesses responding to parent demands, then there’s also a very real threat to equity. That is: if you’re poorly served, it’s because you’re a bad consumer. That’s a recipe for even grosser inequities than we see today.
  • “Finally, there’s the issue of fragmentation. There are very few places left in our society where we come together around our differences. We live in our self-selected echo chambers. If schools are businesses, we should all expect total customization. But at what cost?”

100 Ohio School Districts File a Lawsuit Declaring EdChoice Vouchers Deprive Ohio’s Public School Districts of Essential Revenue

On Tuesday, 100 Ohio public school districts and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution. EdChoice is Ohio’s rapidly growing, publicly funded school voucher program.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “A coalition of 100 school districts sued Ohio over private school vouchers Tuesday, saying that the hundreds of millions of public dollars funneled away from public schools have created an educational system that’s unconstitutional.”

The lead plaintiffs are Columbus City Schools, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, Richmond Heights Local School District, Lima City Schools, Barberton City Schools, Cleveland Heights parents on behalf of their minor sons—Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly, and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. The Cleveland law firm of Walter Haverfield is representing the plaintiffs.

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs declare: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”

The Ohio Legislature incorporated a new “Cupp-Patterson” Fair School Funding Plan into the current biennial budget last June, but plaintiffs charge that the simultaneous expansion of EdChoice vouchers in that same budget has blocked the phase-in and full funding of that school funding plan: “The Ohio Department of Education funds EdChoice Program Vouchers from the budget appropriation designated for public schools. Because public funds are finite, funding EdChoice Program Vouchers out of the foundation funding designated for public school districts inevitably depletes the resources designated by the legislature for educating Ohio’s public school students. H.B. 110 (the state budget bill) initially incorporated the salient features of the Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort to fund Ohio’s public schools adequately and equitably as required by the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State…. However, due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice program, the enacted version of H.B. 110 funded only up to one-third of the increases required by the proposed Fair School Funding Plan over the next two fiscal years.”  “(T)he Fair School Funding Plan was not fully funded due to the ballooning costs of the EdChoice Program. Only 16.67% of the Fair School Funding Plan is being funded through Fiscal Year 2022 and 33% of the Fair School Funding Plan will be funded through Fiscal Year 2023, as specifically delineated in H.B. 110.  This means the General Assembly will meet only a fraction of its constitutional obligation, by the standards it has adopted, to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools for Fiscal Year 2022.”

The new lawsuit charges that the Fair School Funding Plan had been formulated to address inadequate state funding of public schools over recent years: “Over the last decade, the formulas implemented by the General Assembly for funding Ohio’s public schools reflected the amount the General Assembly was willing to spend on public education, rather than the realistic cost of providing a thorough and efficient education to all of Ohio’s students. Due to budget freezes or minimal increases over the last decade, state funding to Ohio’s public school districts has not even kept pace with inflation since Fiscal Year 2011. Additionally, because the funding formula was frozen in Fiscal Year 2020-21 at the 2019 level, but vouchers and “community schools” (which is what Ohio calls charter schools) were funded by way of deductions from total school funding,  affected public school districts lost approximately $193 million in state funding during these formula freezes. In contrast, the per pupil EdChoice Program Voucher payments rose by 15% for a grade 1-8 voucher and by 25% for a grade 9-12 voucher for Fiscal Year 2022 alone.”

The lawsuit delineates the losses in public school funding for one of the plaintiff districts: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, for example, is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”

The Complaint names five counts:

  1. “Creation of one or more systems of uncommon schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  2. “Failure to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools in violation of the Ohio Constitution, Article VI, Section 2.”
  3. “Segregation in violation of the thorough and efficient system of common schools as provided in Article VI, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution.”
  4. “Diversion of funding in violation of the “No Religious or Other Sect Shall Ever Have Any Exclusive Right To or Control Of, Any Part of the School Funds of the State” clause of Article VI.”
  5. “Declaratory Judgement—Violation of Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 2 (asserted by Malcolm McPherson and Fergus Donnelly only).” This section continues: “No compelling or legitimate state interest can account for this discriminatory treatment of Plaintiff Students in comparison with their private school counterparts. No valid government explanation can justify spending two to ten times more per pupil to subsidize private school tuition than the per-pupil amounts paid by the state to educate Ohio’s public school students… Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff Students are also entitled to permanent injunctive relief barring further EdChoice Program payments to subsidize private school tuition made from the state’s foundation school fund.”

At the press conference where the lawsuit was announced, a member of the Richmond Heights Local Schools Board of Education, Nneka Jackson addressed the third count, that EdChoice Vouchers have illegally exacerbated racial segregation in Ohio’s public schools: “If someone tells you this is about helping poor minority children, hook them up to a lie detector test ASAP and stand back because the sparks are going to fly… About 40 percent of Richmond Heights residents are white. Before the EdChoice private school voucher program, about 26 percent of the students in the Richmond Heights School District were white and 74 percent were students of color. Today, after EDChoice, Richmond Heights is three percent white and 97 percent students of color. Private schools are allowed to discriminate, plain and simple, based on disability, disciplinary records, academic standing, religion and financial status. These are often proxies for race and other protected characteristics. Ohio is essentially engaged in state-sponsored discrimination in admissions and retention. You know who can’t do this? Public schools. Common schools.”

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in New Church-State Separation, School Voucher Case

On December 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in another school voucher case that tests the separation of church and state. The case is Carson v. Makin, about school vouchers in the state of Maine.

Carson v. Makin was litigated by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. This case is not an example of parents who want vouchers going out and looking for a law firm to defend their case. For decades the Institute for Justice has been attempting to undermine the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of religion from the mandates of government.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens’ freedom to choose their religion or no religion, and to practice religion as they choose: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause declares that government won’t favor or establish any one religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from telling citizens how they should worship.

The Institute for Justice first litigated cases on school vouchers in the Cleveland voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that vouchers are constitutional as long as the state gives the money to the parents and allows the parents to choose the school instead of awarding the voucher directly to the religious school.  It was a case decided on the Establishment Clause, which says government cannot endorse or establish any particular religion. Zelman v. Simmons Harris significantly expanded school vouchers across the states.

Then in 2020, when it argued for the constitutionality of state dollars going directly to religious schools in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Institute for Justice used an entirely new pretext, this time under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The Institute for Justice alleged that if a state awards tax-funded vouchers for private schools, it can’t discriminate against religious schools just because they are religious. The logic seems tortured, but today’s U.S. Supreme Court majority accepted it.

In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center traces the history of public funding for private high schools in some of Maine’s small towns: “The case, Carson v. Makin, challenges Maine’s exclusion of ‘sectarian’ schools—those that include religious instruction—from the state’s ‘tuitioning’ program. Maine has, for nearly 150 years, allowed towns too small to operate high schools of their own to pay for their students to attend other public or private high schools. The state has, since 1980, placed a ban on schools that would use the public funds for sectarian (religious) teaching… In Maine, tuitioning is used as a way to deliver public education, with the private schools standing in the shoes of the public schools that would otherwise have to be built. As such, it would make no legal or policy sense to hold the private schools to a different set of rules around curriculum, discrimination or proselytizing.”

A professor of law at the University of Dayton, Charles J. Russo explains how the issue in Carson v. Makin differs from Espinoza v. Montana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the state could not discriminate against a school based on its religious status. Carson v. Makin is about the school’s practice—the explicit teaching of religion, which the state of Maine prohibits. On this matter, the state has prevailed in two appeals of this case: “The federal trial court in Maine ruled in favor of the state, affirming that its “tuitioning” statute did not violate the rights of the parents or their children. On appeal, the First Circuit unanimously affirmed in favor of the state… First, the First Circuit decided the requirement that schools be ‘nonsectarian’ did not discriminate solely based on religion or punish the plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their religion.  This is because the rule has a ‘use-based’ limitation—which may prove to be a crucial distinction. In other words, sectarian schools are denied funding not because of their religious identity, the First Circuit wrote, but because of ‘the religious use that they would make of it.'”

Following oral arguments last Wednesday, VOX’s Ian Millhiser reported: “At an oral argument held Wednesday morning, all six members of the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared likely to blow a significant new hole in the wall separating church and state… All six of the Court’s Republican appointees appeared to think that this exclusion for religious schools is unconstitutional—meaning that Maine would be required to pay for tuition at pervasively religious schools. Notably, that could include schools that espouse hateful worldviews. According to the state, one of the plaintiff families in Carson wants the state to pay for a school that requires teachers to sign a contract stating that ‘the Bible says that God recognizes homosexuals and other deviants as perverted’ and that ‘such deviation from Scriptural standards is grounds for termination.’ In the likely event that these plaintiffs’ families prevail, that will mark a significant escalation in the Court’s decisions benefiting the religious right… The justices are likely to place some limits on its decision in Carson, but it’s not yet clear how they will justify those limits… (I)t’s hard to draw a principled line between a Court decision requiring Maine to fund religious education as part of its existing private school tuition program and a decision requiring all states with a public school system to fund religious education.”

It would be a big mistake to assume that most American religions are in favor of any of these cases. Under the free exercise clause, a large number of religious organizations do not want government interfering with their beliefs and practices. On behalf of 24 organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief arguing that the Supreme Court should not, under the Free Exercise clause, affirm the constitutionality of publicly-funded vouchers for religious schools in Maine.  The amici in this case include: the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Catholics for Choice, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ; the Hindu American Foundation, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Churches, The Sikh Coalition; and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The General Counsel and Associate Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Holly Hollman explains why, from the point of view of the organizations filing this amicus brief, this libertarian school voucher case is bad for religion: “Should states be forced to fund the training of young men and women to serve the Lord and become leaders in their church?  Of course not…. In Carson v. Makin, parents are seeking state support for their children’s private religious education. The Baptist Joint Committee and its allies are urging the Court to recognize the historical reasons for keeping the government out of religion… These concerns include protecting individual conscience, respecting inherent limits of government authority in religious matters, and avoiding the creation of divisions based on religious differences.” Hollman reviews Espinoza v. Montana (2020) in which “the Court… held that a Montana tax credit program that funded scholarships to private schools must include private religious schools, notwithstanding Montana law intended to separate church and state.” She explains that in Espinoza, the Court held that the tax credit program violated the Free Exercise Clause because Montana provided tax credits for private schools but excluded some schools because of their religious status. She explains further: “The Carson case tests whether this Free Exercise Clause nondiscrimation rule will be extended to prohibit state programs that are designed to avoid government involvement in religious uses of government funds—such as the explicitly religious activity of providing an education designed to instill a biblical worldview. In our view, it should not.”

Finally in this school year when libertarian organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Manhattan Institute are coordinating and scripting the actions of parents mobbing school board meetings demanding the end of mask mandates, the banning of books, and limitations on what can be taught about slavery and racism, there is another way to look at this case as part of today’s American ethos of individualism and so-called parents’ rights.  Nobody is trying to stop parents from choosing a religious school, but the case of Carson v. Makin, litigated by the Institute for Justice, is intended to force government to pay for the parents’ private school choices.

Michael Bloomberg Continues to Invest in Expanding the Charter Schools that Undermine Public Education

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and a press release last week from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg announced: “Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a national five-year $750 million effort to support the success and growth of existing charter and autonomous schools, open new high quality charter schools, and create city- and state-level conditions that will help sustain this progress. The plan will create 150,000 additional seats for children in charter schools in 20 U.S. metro areas, including New York City.”

Both versions of the announcement blame problems caused by COVID-19 school disruption on what Bloomberg continues to believe are “failing” public schools: “The past 18 months have shown that the American public education system is tragically broken, and we must act immediately to close the student achievement gaps….” “Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement.” And he blames the teachers unions: “Charters, which generally don’t operate under union contracts, also have more flexibility to manage staffing, curriculum, testing and compensation.”

These are old, old Bloomberg themes.  Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City in 2001 and granted mayoral control of the NYC public schools in 2002.  Under the leadership of his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Bloomberg accelerated school choice in NYC by expanding the number of small high schools, phasing out and closing comprehensive neighborhood high schools and rapidly expanding competition with charter schools, which, beginning in 2005, were allowed to co-locate in public school buildings, often taking needed space from their host public schools.

While Bloomberg likes to be known for accelerating the growth of technocratic school reform based on test scores, school choice, and the expansion of privately operated charter schools, there were overwhelming ongoing problems of unequal access and opportunity for students in the NYC public schools during the period of Bloomberg’s mayoral governance. Here is merely one example, documented in a stunning 2013 report in the last year of Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure.  In Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform summarized the history of the school district’s treatment of what were in New York at the time known as “over the counter students.” These are students who do not participate in the annual spring school choice application and lottery process—students who register in the fall or move to the district after school has begun. They include immigrant students and many of the city’s poorest or homeless students.

The Annenberg Institute’s report describes “a persistent criticism of the Bloomberg-era reforms—that the Department of Education (DOE) intensifies the challenges for struggling schools by assigning disproportionate numbers of high-needs students to those schools without providing the supports and assistance those schools need, and that such assignment policies undermine struggling schools’ instructional capacity, reduce staff confidence and morale, lower student achievement indicators, and increase suspensions and other measures of behavior disorder, all of which contribute to the data the DOE uses to target those schools for closing.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 10 percent higher rate of Over the Counter student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “As recent studies have shown, phasing-out-schools become increasingly less able to meet their students’ needs as their staffs diminish… (T)he DOE continues to assign Over the Counter students to high schools in the process of phasing out… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out-schools, the Over the Counter assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”

In last week’s press release about his coming investment of $750 million to expand charter schools, Bloomberg accuses public schools of widespread failure—compared to charter schools—to raise student achievement as measured by test scores.  It would take a book to document all the ways charter schools have figured out to select their students and shape their enrollments to produce higher test scores. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Wagma Mommandi have just published such a book. In the publicity Teachers College Press released about their new book, Mommandi and Welner explain: “(W)e 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…. (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.”

Bloomberg’s support for the expansion of privately operated charter schools and political candidates who support the growth of the charter school sector has been going on across the United States for years. Considerable reporting during Bloomberg’s 2020 Presidential campaign surfaced some of his spending on behalf of charter school expansion. For Time Magazine, Alana Semuels reported:

“Bloomberg’s money has gone especially far in California, where two ethnically and economically diverse school districts, Los Angeles and Oakland, have embraced charter schools. He gave $500,000 to the California Charter Schools Association’s advocates Independent Expenditure Committee in February of 2017, which in turn spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two pro-charter candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified School District school board.  After that race—at the time, the most expensive school board race in U.S. history—pro-charter board members held the majority on the school board for the first time and then appointed Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no experience running a school or a district, to be superintendent.”

Semuels continues: “Bloomberg’s funding in the Oakland school board races continued in 2018, when he gave $250,000 to GO Public Schools California.  In a 2018 campaign filing, Families and Educators for Public Education said it had received $120,000 from Bloomberg through GO Public Schools California.”  “Bloomberg has also funded political action committees and candidates in school board races outside of California.  He spent $290,000 on political action committees supporting pro-charter candidates in a 2011 Louisiana state school board race…. In 2015, ahead of another state school board race, he gave $1.4 million to Empower Louisiana Inc. ... a political action committee that advocated for pro-charter candidates. Seven of the eight ‘pro-reform’ candidates who supported charter schools won their elections. Bloomberg also gave $400,000 to a PAC backing a former charter school executive in a race for mayor of Newark; $185,000 to committees involved in education-related campaigns in Denver; and $100,000 to a committee supporting pro-charter candidates in a Minneapolis school board race.”

In his new book, Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, Maurice T. Cunningham traces the contributions to the campaign for Massachusetts Question 2 in 2016, an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative to lift an authorization cap on the number of new Massachusetts charter schools. Cunningham explores gifts to Great Schools Massachusetts, contributions during one sixty-day reporting period: “The report appeared to show that most of the money it raised was coming from out of state including $250,000 from Texan John Arnold and $240,000 from New Yorker Michael Bloomberg.” (Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, p. 26)

What does all this history say about Michael Bloomberg’s planned new investment in the expansion of charter schools? It says that Bloomberg has long made the expansion of privately operated charter schools at public expense one of his primary political causes.  Remember:  Bloomberg plans to invest $750 million to start up these schools. Like all charter schools, once they are started up, their operation will be at public expense—from state tax dollars and local school funding diverted from the public school districts where they are located.

It is important to remember the warning of Gordon Lafer, who studied the annual $57 million cost to the Oakland Unified School District of the operation of the charter schools within the district’s boundaries:  “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

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

Why Our Federal and State Constitutions Protect Children’s Rights over Parents’ Rights

As fall moves into winter, far-right ideologues continue to argue for the protection of parents’ rights. Organized parents have been mobbing school board meetings to demand the right to screen the curriculum, control the books their children check out of the school library, and prescribe the topics that their children will be allowed to discuss in history and civics classes.

In the past month, Republicans in Congress have been trying to protect parents rights through legislation.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Fox (R-NC), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and several colleagues introduced a Parents Bill of Rights.  And Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a  companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

As the blogger Peter Greene explains, these bills mostly seem to want to protect the rights parents already have in the the vast majority of public school districts: “The bullet point version of the (House) bill lists five rights—the right to know what’s being taught, the right to be heard, the right to see the school budget and spending, the right to protect their child’s privacy, and the right to be updated on any violent activity at school.  Most of which seems… kind of redundant, giving parents rights they already have.”

But there are indications that this debate has emerged because some parents—and the ideologues who are organizing parents—fear that some deeper and more complicated kind of parental control is threatened. Theorists are now speaking to the constitutional issues around protection of parents’ and children’s rights.

In late October, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, an extreme libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and the president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, Philip Hamburger made the bizarre, First Amendment argument that public education itself violates parents’ freedom of speech: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.” (The hotlink is to Diane Ravitch’s blog, where the article is reprinted; the original is paywalled.)

Like many on the far-right, Hamburger prefers to substitute the word “government” for the word “public,” and he seems to believe government is trying to brainwash children with “education” their parents don’t want them to know about.

On Monday, a professor of law at West Virginia University, Joshua Weishart published a profound response to the controversy about parents’ rights—an explanation that identifies what it is at school that has frightened so many parents. Weishart doesn’t worry so much about parents’ rights, because, he explains: “In our constitutional order, children’s freedoms take priority over parental freedoms. Given the overriding importance of schooling to democracy, our laws elevate and protect the rights of all children to learn and grow as citizens.”

Weishart believes today’s frenzy about parents’ rights can be traced back, as controversy about civil rights often is, to America’s oldest problem—racism: “Remember that the demand for equal educational opportunity crystallized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which then sparked opponents’ cries for parental freedom. Many saw then and see now that parental freedom meant the freedom to preserve a racist structure of schooling. Segregation indeed remains our most disgraceful yet enduring sacrifice on the alter of parental freedom. Time and again, the Supreme Court has revered the residential and private school choices of parents even as they have exacerbated segregation and widened school funding disparities, leaving far too many of our schools separate and unequal—essentially upending Brown‘s declaration that both segregation and unequal educational opportunities subvert the equal protection of the laws.”

But some of the state supreme courts have more carefully protected the rights of children to learn from their experiences in diverse common schools. Weishart reviews the Clark v. Board of Directors case decided by the Iowa Supreme Court soon after the end of the Civil War: “The Clark decision offered a stern rebuke to the notion that the law protects the choice to segregate in public school settings. Underlying the court’s reasoning was the notion that segregation denies children the freedom to learn through a unifying school experience open to all, one meant to cultivate a core of shared values, sense of community, and mutual understanding essential for the common good in a democratic society. Segregation, the court thus concluded, deprived all children, Black and white alike, of ‘the privileges and benefits of our common schools,’ guaranteed to them under the state constitution.”

Weishart concludes: “Unbounded parental freedom serves only to stratify students, divide communities, and undercut the mission of public schools.” He adds: “Parents, of course, retain the privilege, under the U.S. Constitution, to decide whether their children will receive a public or private education and, in a more general sense, control their children’s education. But that ‘control’ has always been subject to reasonable state regulation and must yield to state compelling interests in a democratically educated citizenry. In no case does it secure parents the right to dictate the curriculum, restrict the flow of information from the school, or jeopardize the health and well-being of other children. What’s more, parents’ freedom to select a publicly subsidized school of their choice enjoys no constitutional protection whatsoever.”

The American philosopher of education and the father of progressive education, John Dewey believed that children learn not so much from what they are taught but from their experience of society as it is embedded in the school community. The purpose of public schooling is, according to Dewey (in 1897), to provide the social experiences children need to prepare them for American citizenship:

“I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned.” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through those demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.”

Dewey would advise today’s American parents to encourage their children to participate freely in the school community without fear, for the public school is the microcosm of our society.

New Research Yet Again Proves the Folly of Judging Teachers by Their Students’ Test Scores

The Obama Administration’s public education policy, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was deeply flawed by its dependence on technocracy. In the 1990s, Congress had been wooed by researchers who had developed the capacity to produce giant, computer-generated data sets. What fell out of style in school evaluations were personal classroom observations by administrators who were more likely to notice the human connections that teachers and children depended on for building trusting relationships to foster learning.

Technocratic policy became law in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the omnibus No Child Left Behind Act. Technocratic policy reached its apogee in 2009 as Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top grant program became a centerpiece of the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress to ameliorate the 2008 Great Recession.

In an important 2014 article, the late Mike Rose, a professor of education, challenged the dominant technocratic ideology.  He believed that excellent teaching cannot be measured by the number of correct answers any teacher’s students mark on a standardized test. Rose reports: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch reviews the technocratic strategy of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top. To qualify for a federal grant under this program, states had to promise to evaluate public school teachers by the standardized test scores of their students: “Unfortunately, President Obama’s Race to the Top adopted the same test-based accountability as No Child Left Behind. The two programs differed in one important respect: where NCLB held schools accountable for low scores, Race to the Top held both schools and teachers accountable. States were encouraged to create data systems to link the test scores of individual students to individual teachers. If the students’ scores went up, the teacher was an ‘effective’ teacher; if the students’ scores did not go up, the teacher was an ‘ineffective’ teacher  If schools persistently had low scores, the school was a ‘failing’ school, and its staff should be punished.” (Reign of Error, p. 99).

Ravitch reminds readers of a core principle: “The cardinal rule of psychometrics is this: a test should be used only for the purpose for which it is designed. The tests are designed to measure student performance in comparison to a norm; they are not designed to measure teacher quality or teacher ‘performance.'” (Reign of Error, p. 111)

This week, Education Week‘s Madeline Will covers major new longitudinal research documenting what we already knew: that holding teachers accountable for raising their students’ test scores neither improved teaching nor promoted students’ learning:

“Nationally, teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. ‘There was a tremendous amount of time and billions of dollars invested in putting these systems into place and they didn’t have the positive effects reformers were hoping for.’ said Joshua Bleiberg, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University… A team of researchers from Brown and Michigan State Universities and the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the timing of states’ adoption of the reforms alongside district-level student achievement data from 2009 to 2018 on standardized math and English/language arts test scores. They also analyzed the impact of the reforms on longer-term student outcomes including high school graduation and college enrollment. The researchers controlled for the adoption of other teacher accountability measures and reform efforts taking place around the same time, and found that their results remained unchanged. They found no evidence that, on average, the reforms had even a small positive effect on student achievement or educational attainment.”

Arne Duncan is no longer the U.S. Secretary of Education. And in 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with a different federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in which Congress permitted states more latitude in how they evaluate schoolteachers. So why is this new 2021 research so urgently important?  Madeline Will reports, “Evaluation reform has already changed course. States overhauled their teacher-evaluation systems quickly, and many reversed course within just a few years.”  Will adds, however, that in 2019,  34 states were still requiring “student-growth data in teacher evaluations.”

In 2019, for the Phi Delta Kappan, Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins surveyed teacher evaluation systems across the states.  Many states still evaluate teachers according to how much each teacher adds to a student’s learning as measured by test scores, a statistic called the Value-Added Measure (VAM).  Practices across the states are slowly evolving: “While the legacy of VAMs as the ‘objective’ student growth measure remains in place to some degree, the definition of student growth in policy and practice is also changing. Before ESSA, student growth in terms of policy was synonymous with students’ year-to-year changes in performance on large-scale standardized tests (i.e., VAMs). Now, more states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) as alternative or sole ways to measure growth in student learning or teachers’ impact on growth. SLOs are defined as objectives set by teachers, sometimes in conjunction with teachers’ supervisors and/or students, to measure students’ growth. While SLOs can include one or more traditional assessments (e.g., statewide standardized tests), they can also include nontraditional assessments (e.g., district benchmarks, school-based assessments, teacher and classroom-based measures) to assess growth. Indeed, 55% (28 of 51) of states now report using or encouraging SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems, to some degree instead of VAMs.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act eased federal pressure on states to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores, but five years since its passage, remnants of these policies linger in the laws of many states.  Once bad policy based on technocratic ideology has become embedded in state law, it may not be so easy to change course.

In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the Harvard University psychometrician, Daniel Koretz explains succinctly why students’ test scores cannot possibly separate “successful” from “failing” schools and why students’ test scores are an inaccurate and unfair standard for evaluating teachers:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Appreciating the Public Schools We Take for Granted

This week is American Education Week and next week will be Thanksgiving. In this context, I have been thinking about the challenge of valuing an institution we tend to overlook. Here are a few of my thoughts and some from wiser thinkers who have considered the importance of our nation’s system of public schooling.

This blog will take the holiday week off.  Look for a new post on November 29.

Like all human institutions, public education is imperfect. As a primary civic institution, our public school system reflects all the sins and problems of our society.  Nevertheless, public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents are served. Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular student and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all students.  Our society has improved the fairness of our system of public education over the generations by passing laws to protect the rights and serve the needs of previously marginalized African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, English Language Learner, and LGBTQ children.  We need to keep on making public schools safer and more authentically welcoming for every student, but at the same time, we should be grateful that our ancestors established a school system that aspires to our best civic values.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber summarizes some of the things we forget to value but count on nonetheless: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

Appreciating Teachers in these Fraught Times

This year we especially need to celebrate school teachers. They deserve extra respect and gratitude in this year when COVID-19 is still disrupting school—as students and teachers continue to test positive for the pandemic and classes are quarantined for periods of time; as teachers must fill in for others who get sick in addition to managing their own classes because there is a shortage of available substitutes; and as children struggle to adjust a regular schedule after a year of the utter disruption of normal schooling. Exhausted teachers are working to help students catch up academically and readjust socially to institutional routines and being with each other.  As we watch all the frenzied press about parents protesting about mask requirements during COVID and parents distrusting the teaching of American history, we ought to remember that classroom teachers have become an easy target.  Teachers deserve special thanks and appreciation as another difficult COVID-19 school year is now underway.

We especially need to celebrate the fact that so many teachers keep on keeping on day after day amidst these very difficult circumstances. While there are shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers and teachers’ aides, for FiveThirtyEight, Rebecca Klein reports that the number of teachers resigning their positions in frustration has been less than alarming reports originally projected: “By many accounts, teachers have been particularly unhappy and stressed out about their jobs since the pandemic hit, first struggling to adjust to difficult remote-learning requirements and then returning to sometimes unsafe working environments.  A nationally representative survey of teachers by RAND Education and Labor in late January and early February found that educators were feeling depressed and burned out… Yet the data on teacher employment shows a system that is stretched, not shattered.  In an EdWeek Research Center report released in October, a significant number of district leaders and principals surveyed—a little less than half—said that their district had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers. This number paled in comparison, though, with the nearly 80 percent of school leaders who said they were struggling to find substitute teachers, the nearly 70 percent who said they were struggling to find bus drivers and the 55 percent who said they were struggling to find paraprofessionals.”

Klein gives considerable credit to teachers unions for supporting teachers through this very difficult period: “Indeed, union representation, and the perks that come along with it, is something that other sectors facing massive shortages of female workers, like service and hospitality industries don’t necessarily receive. As of 2017, about 70 percent of teachers participated in a union or professional association, according to federal data. By comparison, the same is true for only about 17 percent of nurses, another predominantly female workforce.”

Klein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Every place I went, yes, there’s trepidation, a lot of agita over the effects of COVID, but there’s real joy of people being back in school with their kids… Female professions are undervalued by society, and I think that’s part of the reason teachers are more densely organized than almost any other worker in America right now.”

Appreciating Public Institutions Against the Threat of School Privatization

The purveyors of school privatization at public expense—as an alternative to traditional public schools—are a persistent threat to our universal system of public schooling. Well-organized and determined advocates for school privatization are taking advantage of all the pandemic-related frustrations to peddle their wares. Glitzy ads for K-12 Inc, the for-profit online school, pop up on the cable news networks and despite information to the contrary, charter schools brag to parents that their schools are less disrupted by COVID. Ohio’s new state budget expands plain old vouchers and introduces education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers. Charter schools are being introduced in West Virginia. What are the reasons to appreciate our public system instead?

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, conceptualizes what we all lose when we privatize an essential public institution like education. The losers are always the most vulnerable, those who lack power and money:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Appreciating Learning in a Public School Setting

In our era when when extremists are disrupting  too many local school board meetings and far-right legislators armed with ALEC model bills for vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers are trying to expand tax supported school privatization in many places, we can consider the words of the late Mike Rose. Rose spent a lifetime celebrating public education, but he believed its promise must be perpetually expanded:

“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….  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.”

Reengaging may begin with taking the time to consider and appreciate what happens in our public schools. Rose continues: “One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life…. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us….  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.”  (Why School?, pp 203-207)

Closing Achievement Gaps Will Require Closing Opportunity Gaps Outside of School

Last week this blog highlighted Advocates for Children of New York’s new report documenting that more than 10 percent of the over one million students in the New York City Public Schools—101,000 students—are homeless. These students are living in shelters, doubled up with friends or relatives, or living in cars and parks. What are the academic challenges for these homeless children and other children living in families with minimum wage employment, unemployment, unstable housing, food insecurity and inadequate medical care?

Although federal law continues to require that states measure the quality of schools and school districts with standardized tests, all sorts of research documents that students’ standardized test scores are indicators of their life circumstances and not a good measure of the quality of their public schools. Students concentrated in poor cities or scattered in impoverished and remote rural areas are more likely to struggle academically no matter the quality of their public school.

Here are just two examples of this research.

In 2017, Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan studied data from Michigan to identify the role of economic disadvantage in achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “We use administrative data from Michigan to develop a… detailed measure of economic disadvantage… Children who spend all of their school years eligible for subsidized meals have the lowest scores, whereas those who are never eligible have the highest. In eighth grade, the score gap between these two groups is nearly a standard deviation.” “Sixty percent of Michigan’s eighth graders were eligible for subsidized lunch at least once during their time in public schools. But just a quarter of these children (14% of all eighth graders) were economically disadvantaged in every year between kindergarten and eighth grade… Ninety percent of the test score gap we observe in eighth grade between the persistently disadvantaged and the never disadvantaged is present by third grade.”

In How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University describes academic research showing that evaluating public schools based on standardized test scores is unfair to educators and misleading to the public: “It turns out that gaps in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children are largely formed prior to kindergarten entry and then do not grow appreciably when children are in school.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 9) “Much of the ‘action’ of inequality therefore occurs very early in life… In addition to the fact that achievement gaps are primarily formed in early childhood, there is another reason to believe that schools are not as responsible for inequality as many think. It turns out that when children are in school during the nine-month academic year, achievement gaps are rather stable. Indeed, sometimes we even observe that socioeconomic gaps grow more slowly during school periods than during summers.” (How Schools Really Matter, p. 28)

In the context of this research, Downey examines the six indicators the Ohio Department of Education uses to evaluate public schools when it releases annual report cards on school performance. Although the state has ceased branding public schools with “A-F” letter grades, Downey explains that the state of Ohio continues to ignore the role outside-of-school variables in students’ lives when it blames educators and schools for low aggregate test scores:

“The report card for schools is constructed from six indicators and not a single one of them gauges performance independent of the children’s nonschool environments. First is achievement, which is based on the percentage of students  who pass state tests… By far, the biggest determinant of whether a school produces high or low test scores is the income level of the students’ families it serves… Second is the extent to which a district closes achievement gaps among subgroups. But performance on this indicator can also be influenced by factors out of the school’s control… Third, schools are gauged by the degree to which the school improved at-risk K-3 readers… Of course, it is much easier to make progress on this indicator if serving children who go home each evening to reinforce the school goals. Fourth, schools are evaluated on their progress, an indicator based on how much growth students exhibit on math and reading tests. This kind of indicator is better than most at isolating how schools matter, but again, growth is easier in schools where students enjoy home environments that also promote learning… Fifth, the graduation rate constitutes a component of the district’s (rating)… but this is only a measure of school quality if the likelihood of a child’s on-time graduation has nothing to do with the stress they experience at home, the access they have to health care, or the quality of their neighborhood.  Finally districts are evaluated on whether their students are prepared for success.  This indicator gauges the percentage of students at a school viewed as ready to succeed after high school… and is determined by how well the students performed on the ACT or SAT and whether they earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam… These report cards ‘are designed to give parents, communities, educators, and policymakers information about the performance of districts and schools,’ but what they really do is mix important factors outside of school with what is going on inside the schools in unknown ways.” (How Schools Really Matter, pp. 115-116)

What these reports and many others demonstrate is that we cannot expect that no child will be left behind merely because Congress passes a law declaring that schools can make every American child post proficient test scores by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s (and now the Every Student Succeeds Act’s)  policies—which have branded schools unable quickly to raise aggregate test scores as “failing schools”— have unfairly targeted school districts located in poor communities. In 2017, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which he shows that ameliorating opportunity gaps in the lives of children is not something schools can accomplish by themselves.

Koretz explains: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

Glenn Youngkin’s Campaign in Virginia Was about Something Sinister, Not about Public Education

If you listen to the national news on CNN or PBS or the networks, you have been told how shocking it was that public education became a hot issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race.  These newscasters, who rarely cover statewide news and were reporting on the Virginia election as a national bell weather, seemed surprised that public school policy had caught voters’ attention. In fact, public schooling is regularly an issue when candidates run for state legislatures or governor. Usually a third or more of a state’s budget pays for the public schools, and most public education policy is made by state legislators and administered by governors according to the principles defined in the 50 state constitutions.

But what was unusual in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia is that it was not really about the state’s public schools, despite that there was some discussion in both his and Terry McAuliffe’s campaigns about the funding of the state’s schools.

As more and more commentators are taking the trouble to explain, Youngkin’s campaign was instead a tissue of dog whistle appeals to racism, the culmination of a months’ long strategy by policy think tanks to redefine an arcane academic term, “Critical Race Theory” for the purpose of provoking fear among white, Republican parents.

The truth is that far-right groups are inflaming parents with an artificially constructed argument that public school teachers and curriculum directors are trying to make white children anxious or guilty or ashamed.  In June, The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identified Christopher Rufo as a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight.”

More recently the National Education Policy Center documented that Rufo is, in fact, a well-paid fellow of the Manhattan Institute: “The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-Critical Race Theory narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’”

The National Education Policy Center traces the work aimed at inspiring this year’s controversy about Critical Race Theory to particular think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.  Well funded groups working to galvanize parents include Parents Defending Education,  Moms for LibertyNo Left Turn in Education,  FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education.

In a column in yesterday’s NY Times, political strategists Tory Gavito and Adam Jentleson analyze what happened Tuesday in Virginia’s election for governor: “The Virginia election results should shock Democrats into confronting the powerful role that racially coded attacks play in American politics. No candidate would think of entering an election without a winning message on the economy or health care. Yet by failing to counter his opponent’s racial dog whistles, Terry McAuliffe did the equivalent, finding himself defenseless against a strategy Republicans have used to win elections for decades. Crucially, the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, was able to use racially coded attacks to motivate sky-high white turnout… (T)he past half-century of American political history shows that racially coded attacks are how Republicans have been winning elections… from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign to Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad.  Many of these campaigns were masterminded by the strategist Lee Atwater, who in 1981 offered a blunt explanation: Being overtly racist backfires, he noted, ‘so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.’  C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory) is straight out of the Atwater playbook.”

It is rare for me to agree wholeheartedly with Frederick Hess, a neoliberal corporate school reformer who supported No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, who bought into Race to the Top, and who supports the expansion of charter schools. But today, Hess’s analysis of Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race is persuasive.  Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson describes Hess’s concerns:

“Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks one of McAuliffe’s fatal blunders was to avoid forthrightly addressing the issue of critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives including teacher-bias trainings. McAuliffe should have told parents that he wants to ensure every kid feels valued and learns the country’s true history,  Hess said — but McAuliffe should have made clear that does not mean letting interest groups or ideologues shape public school curriculums. ‘That would have lanced the boil in a very powerful way, and they could have reset the conversation…. If Democrats start making those decisions and articulating those arguments, I think this could all turn out to be a post-Trump fever and it breaks…. But if Democrats can’t bring themselves to do that… I think this could very well build to a head of steam in 2024.”

This blog has covered the controversy about Critical Race Theory here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”