Puerto Rico Will Experiment with Shock Doctrine Education Reform

Even though our education-disrupter-in-chief, Arne Duncan, has moved to the private sector to work for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, L.L.C., we should not expect his kind of thinking in education to disappear. Duncan—purveyor of disruption through charter schools—believer in social entrepreneurship as a replacement for old fashioned school systems—father of rewarding the kids who can race to the top in a climate of competition—represented a wave of business school theorizing about public education that is absent from Betsy DeVos’s plain old libertarian philosophy. Still, it turns out, DeVos is quite supportive of a new plan to introduce marketplace school choice in Puerto Rico.

Catherine Cheney reports on a Global Skills & Education Forum last week, a forum whose agenda reflects today’s push to turn over whole education systems to philanthropic-driven experiments in privatization. In Cheney’s report, you’ll see that venture philanthropists are exploring how to bring “quality education for all” across the world and doing it for profit—or sometimes not-for-profit—based on theories hatched in think tanks underwritten with billionaire philanthropic dollars donated to foundations or L.L.C.s like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative or Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

It is sometimes hard to parse out how all this will work when one reads about it through the glowing haze of business school rhetoric.  Here is Cheney’s description: “‘There is definitely an interest in for-profit companies that serve the very poor right now, but it’s mostly concessional ventures, groups that are quasi-philanthropic,’ said John Rogers, a partner and education sector lead at the Rise Fund, a global impact fund led by the private equity firm TPG. The fund is looking for opportunities to help the mass market in a way that is not concessionary, Rogers said.  The Rise Fund’s first investment in Latin America was in Digital House, a group of schools based in Argentina providing digital skills across Latin America. Rogers said he hopes more groups that are making grants and program-related investments will consider for-profit companies because they may find that the focus on profit also delivers greater scale.”

Cheney describes lots of controversy and discussion at the recent global education forum about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the for-profit, tech-heavy schools exported to Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, and India, where governments have been contracting with—and sometimes disgustedly cancelling the contracts with—BIA schools. Bridge International Academies was built with a huge personal investment by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others. There have been problems of high tuition for parents along with mixed results for children and for the governments that worry about undermining stressed out public systems by contracting with an international, tech-heavy scheme. Cheney describes controversy swirling around BIA schools: “New models that push for change are often met with resistance, and that has certainly proven true in efforts to transform education.  Bridge International Academies is one high-profile example of the backlash against Silicon Valley’s involvement in education. The tech heavy chain of private schools has come under fire in multiple countries, leading to a legal battle over some of its schools.  Some Bridge investors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying the backlash comes from people who do not want to see the status quo disrupted….”  One analyst explained: “Bridge International Academies serves as a cautionary tale about the problems of perception when a model appears to be replacing people rather than supporting people.”  Of course, the problem may be reality rather than mere perception: people may well be concerned when electronic devices are used to increase class size and reduce the number of live teachers.

All this international policy talk serves as a backdrop for what is being discussed and planned in Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory ravaged by Hurricane Maria last September. The reality is that when disaster strikes these days, there are plenty of philanthropically funded think tanks and consultants poised to sell your government on the ideology of privatizing your public schools.  Remember that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the primary funders of the privatization of New Orleans’ schools was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On March 22, POLITICO reported: “A law that would overhaul Puerto Rico’s education system—and usher in charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for alternatives to public schools—is on its way to the desk of Gov. Ricardo Rossello.  The plan was pitched as the island’s education system grappled with a tough recovery and mass migration to the states following Hurricane Maria.  The proposal finalized by both legislative chambers this week would reduce the number of students who can receive school vouchers to… 3 percent—down from the 5 percent Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives had approved last week… The Legislation would allow for the creation of charter schools, or for the conversion of existing public schools into charters. An amendment from the island’s Senate, however, prohibits specialized schools, like Montessori schools, from converting to charters.”

The source of this plan, according to The Nation, is Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, but previously a consultant from Philadelphia hired by Puerto Rico to “reform” the island’s education: “(I)n the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to ‘design and implement education reform initiatives’ in Puerto Rico… With the assistance of DeVos’s office, Keleher’s department has now produced an education-reform bill designed to increase ‘school choice through measures such as the creation of charter schools and school-voucher programs.'”

How have Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education been involved?  Apparently Keleher has worked through the winter with Jason Botel, DeVos’s assistant secretary.  For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen reports: “DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in ‘close communication’ with Puerto Rio’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blog post published in January, Botel wrote, ‘We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.'”  Cohen adds: “At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Rican’s worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it—while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.”

Only weeks after the governor’s signing of the new education plan, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has now announced the closing of 283 public schools. Valerie Strauss puts this number in perspective: a third of the public schools on the island. The stated purpose of the school closures is to save money by consolidating schools after many students have left Puerto Rico for the mainland.

Nobody in a position of power seems to have questioned the logic of expanding school choice and privatization at a time when public school enrollment has already been falling as families abandon the island. Researchers like Bruce Baker and scholars at Chicago’s Roosevelt University have, however, pointed out repeatedly that by expanding the number of charter schools in the same geographic space while public school enrollment has already been dropping, cities like Chicago have further undermined their public school districts by creating an ongoing cycle of closure of neighborhood public schools.

Many worry that Puerto Rico’s experiment with privatization is another example of what—in relation to the seizure and privatization of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein called “the Shock Doctrine.” Certainly those at the Global Skills and Education Conference are contemplating disruptive education reform—developed with money from technology-driven venture philanthropies to be introduced top-down in the developing world where public schools are suffering.  Klein’s description of the use of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster, as the excuse to disrupt and privatize the public schools of New Orleans remains pertinent to  Julia Keleher and Jason Botel’s plan for the disruption of education in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico today.

Here is Naomi Klein: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31.  New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.  Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.  New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)


Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud

While teachers have been demonstrating in the state capitals of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, a huge fight about the subject of their demonstrations—the failure of states adequately to fund public education—has been going on without so much fanfare in Kansas, where legislators have fought and failed so far to arrive at any kind of compromise about raising funds to comply with a deadline set by the state’s supreme court.

Facing an April 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with enough funds to undo years years of catastrophic tax slashing by former Governor Sam Brownback and the same legislature, this week Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature debated plans for phasing in minimal additional funding over five years—one plan with $274 million and and another with $520 million.  They have also been talking about a tired, old strategy: Attack the Supreme Court itself. Here is the Associated Press report on this latest idea brought to the legislature: “A coalition of Kansas business and agricultural groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole authority to decide education funding levels…. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding would remove the state court’s role in deciding what constitutes suitable education funding….”

By contrast, as teachers marched and filled statehouse lobbies this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, at least some progress was made to repair years and years of austerity budgeting caused by years and years of tax slashing.  All four states—including Kansas—are part of today’s 26-state, all Red wave of Republican trifecta states. In these statehouses large blocks of legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes-in-my-lifetime pledge. These general assemblies are dominated by membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That’s why, despite that the teachers haven’t been winning every salary or pension or state education budget fight, it is necessary to point out that striking teachers have at least begun to apply enough pressure to staunch the bleeding. That’s why Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader‘s editorial board thanked the teachers who have been protesting: “Lawmakers knew that fired-up educators and pro-education Kentuckians, who filled the Capitol for weeks, were watching. That’s a big reason the Republicans who control the General Assembly abandoned some of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s and their own worst ideas for cutting public pensions and public spending. Instead lawmakers chose—of all things—to raise taxes. Many had to break the pledge that they had signed to oppose all tax increases. They responded to the needs and demands of Kentuckians rather than answer to distant anti-government puppet masters. That’s refreshing and encouraging.”  The editorial goes on to explain that the tax increase was the most regressive kind of consumption-sales tax and that the Kentucky legislature did at the same time further cut taxes on the state’s richest citizens, but teachers at least succeeded in securing some funding for the state’s children and their schools as they also demanded that their own pension system be fixed.  (Kentucky is among the fifteen states where teachers do not qualify for Social Security. The pension system provides their sole retirement benefit.)

This week the teachers’ walkouts and teachers’ protests of Red-state tax slashing have also made it as a topic of the commentariat.  Teachers have managed to make visible what has been a widespread problem for years—a problem of state-by-state tax policy that has slipped beneath the radar because it is too wonky and also too easy to castigate as somebody else’s problem.  Without mentioning the teachers themselves, the NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, writing on Monday, explained, “I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics… (C)onsider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma—both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind—have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. also suddenly noticed state tax slashing, austerity budgeting, and public school under-funding: “The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions… Today’s rebellion… is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.  The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay.  They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings and reductions in actual teaching time… The red-state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters.  You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap.  If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this.”

If such columnists regularly wrote about all children’s right to well funded public schools, there would not be such a need for blogs like this one.

Dionne and other columnists recommend that we notice the work of Brooklyn College political scientist, Corey Robin, who believes we may be observing the emergence of a revolution against the anti-tax conservative orthodoxy of the last forty years.  Robin theorizes that our current situation began with the passage—largely ignored in the political season when it was passed by referendum in 1978—of California’s tax freeze, Proposition 13: “which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services….”

Robin continues: “It’s 40 years later… Right now, in the reddest of states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, we’re seeing the real resistance, the most profound and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the contemporary governing order.”

I am a resident of all-Red Ohio, whose property tax freeze—similar to Prop. 13—is embedded in our state’s constitution. Ohio is also a state where tax cuts for corporations and the rich have been undermining public school funding for years.

I am grateful to the public school teachers who have been striking this month to improve not only their salaries but also their working—and our children’s learning—conditions.

However, by paying attention to the impasse in the Kansas General Assembly, we can see that turning around what Robin calls “the Prop 13 order” will be neither quick nor easy. We’ll need persistently to stand with teachers as they rise up against educational austerity in Red-state America.

This blog has covered this month’s walkouts by teachers here, here, here and here.

Robin Hood in Reverse: State Tax Deductions Steal from Public Schools, Reward Rich Parents with 529 Accounts

When Congress passed a major tax reform bill in December, it created the possibility of using 529 college savings plans for private K-12 education—a new way to save for private school tuition at public expense—especially when the states add their own tax credits and tax deductions to incentivize parents to use 529 accounts. Parents have been able to save for college using such plans, where the money appreciates with a financial benefit: The parents don’t have to pay tax on the interest that accrues while the money sits in the account.

NY Times columnist Ron Lieber explains how all this would work for a family using a 529 plan to help with private school tuition and later with college costs: “In a bill that offered many perks for the wealthy, the 529 provision was a particularly brazen giveaway… With 529 plans, you put money in, let it grow for years in mutual funds and then pull it out to use for higher education expenses. When you do, you don’t pay capital gains taxes on what you’ve earned over time… At this point, it would be financial malpractice for accountants and financial advisers not to be recommending to clients that they consider this kind of upfront investment. Imagine a wealthy family in the highest tax bracket that opens a 529 plan with $200,000 and doesn’t add another cent. The money grows at 6 percent annually, and the family takes out the maximum $10,000 each year, avoiding $2,380 in (federal) taxes annually. During the elementary and secondary school years, it saves $30,940 in (federal) taxes. At that point, the account would still have money left over. A lot of money: $370,717.  And once the beneficiary of the 529 account enters college, the family can withdraw as much as the entire annual cost of college and related expenses (not just $10,000) each year, avoiding even more capital gains taxes over that period.”

Let’s be very clear: By changing the law to permit parents to use 529 accounts to pay for K-12 education, Congress wasn’t trying to help poor people. 529 plans are for people with money managers and financial advisors. From the point of view a wealthy family, this makes good financial sense. But what about the point of view of a society trying to provide a system of mass public K-12 education?  Within the scope of the federal budget, the new program is merely a blip.  But states provide about half of all public school funding, and over 30 states have been providing tax incentives—tax deductions or tax credits—to encourage college savings.

Now, after Congress expanded the opportunity for parents to use 529 plans for private K-12 schooling, states are rushing to conform their 529 college savings plans to the new federal law permitting the money to be used for K-12 private school tuition. The Wall Street Journal‘s Michelle Hackman explains how this is playing out: “State officials across the country are increasingly worried that a provision in the new tax law extending college savings accounts to K-12 expenses will blow an unexpected hole in their budgets. The federal government created modern 529 savings plans in the mid-1990s that allow families to put away money for education and allow it to grow tax-free. As an added incentive, more than 30 states offer their own tax breaks to people who put money into the accounts. In December, as part of a broad tax overhaul, Congress expanded the accounts to cover up to $10,000 a year in expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade. State budget officials are now concerned that a large number of parents will use 529 accounts to pay private school tuition, giving them a new write-off for their state taxes.  That could result in potentially millions of dollars in lost tax revenue at a time when most states are struggling to close budget deficits.” (The Wall Street Journal paywalls its articles. Hackman’s piece, “States Worry You May Claim 529 Tax Exemption for K-12 School Tuition,” was published on 2/16/18.)

Hackman calculates the amounts particular states stand to lose: “Some red states have embraced the change. In Missouri, state officials have launched a social media campaign to tell residents they can use 529 accounts, and the state’s $8000-a-person tax deduction, for primary and secondary school expenses… Other states are expressing concern, some more publicly than others.  In Indiana, where the state offers a $1,000 tax credit to anyone putting money in a 529 account, the state could lose $117 million a year….”

Here is one way Hackman believes the new state provisions might be abused. She speculates that, unless states craft their laws with careful protections, parents might deposit the money they plan to spend for private school tuition into a 529 account and then pull it out the next week to pay tuition, thereby collecting whatever tax deduction the state provides as an incentive for investing in what is supposed to be a long term 529 account. What lawmakers originally intended as an incentive for long term investment becomes a short term tax dodge.

Fund Public Schools, Not Savings Accounts for the Rich, a February brief from Policy Matters Ohio, warned the Ohio Legislature against passing a provision in Senate Bill 22 to expand Ohio’s tax incentive for parents who now save for college in a 529 account to apply to parents who use the accounts for K-12 private school expenses. Parents in Ohio have been able to qualify for up to a $4,000 state tax deduction for investing in a 529 plan: “Ohio lawmakers should not allow contributions to 529 plan college savings accounts to be used to pay for K-12 private and parochial school tuition. CollegeAdvantage (Ohio’s 529 plan) is primarily used by the upper income and does little to help middle- and low-income people.  The GOP wants to slash funding for important… K-12 programs, while rewarding the most affluent with tax cuts for sending their children to private school. If Ohio adopts this proposal, it will prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy over revenue to support public education, which educates the vast majority of Ohio’s children.”

Despite the warning, both houses of Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature passed SB 22, and recently Governor John Kasich signed the bill into law.

After 17 Years, Local School Board to Replace State Oversight in Philadelphia

What will happen in  Philadelphia as Pennsylvania releases the school district from 17 years of badly bungled state control?

In a piece this week for Our Future, Jeff Bryant marks the emergence of the School District of Philadelphia from state oversight: “State control of Philadelphia’s schools came to an end in November 2017, when the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), which governed the schools, voted itself out of existence…. The transfer of governing power is expected to be completed by June 30.”

The School District of Philadelphia has been a centerpiece of corporate school reform for years and years. The issues have always been money and the myth that privatization would relieve the state budget by establishing efficiencies to lower the expenses in the state’s largest and among its poorest school districts.

In 2000-2001, the state seized control of the district, established an appointed School Reform Commission to replace the locally elected board of education, and forced the resignation of Superintendent David Hornbeck. Reformers wanted test scores raised and deficits obliterated without having to increase the state budget to compensate for outrageous school funding inequity. At the time, writes Samuel Abrams in his fine book, Education and the Commercial Mindset: “The differences in per-pupil expenditure in Pennsylvania were indeed striking. While Philadelphia, for example, spent $7,944 per student in 2000-2001, the five school districts along the Paoli/Thorndale Line—traditionally known as the Main Line—of the region’s commuter rail system, taking suburbanites southeast into Philadelphia and back, spent, on average, $11,437 per student…. Philadelphia was, in other words, expected to educate its children spending 70 percent as much per pupil as the school districts of Great Valley, Haverford, Lower Merion, Radnor, and Tredyffrin-Eastown.  Making matters worse, children in Philadelphia came to school with many more needs than their peers in the leafy Main Line suburbs…. Over the previous five years for which data are available, Philadelphia spent, on average, 68 percent as much per pupil as its neighboring Main Line school districts.” (Education and the Commercial Mindset, pp. 100-101)

The state then contracted with Edison Schools, the private management company, to evaluate the future of the School District of Philadelphia. Edison prescribed abolishing the elected board of education, replacing it with an appointed School Reform Commission of which one of the five members would be appointed by Philadelphia’s mayor and the other four by the governor. The new SRC imposed turnaround plans on many schools. Edison Schools, according to the recommendation in its own study of the district, eventually took over management of 20 of the city’s public schools. Ironically Edison almost went broke trying to run schools while cutting costs to try to live up to what it had promised in an underbid. Education often costs more than privatizers promise. (Education and the Commercial Mindset, p. 136)

The School Reform Commission’s implementation of the plan has been problematic for two reasons. First, Philadelphia’s schools were drastically underfunded under state leadership by the tax slashing Governor Tom Corbett, and the rapid expansion of parasitic charter schools has undermined the host public school district.

Jeff Bryant describes the impact of austerity education budgeting by Corbett and his tax slashing legislature: “More budget cuts ensued after the recession of 2008 and the election of Republican Governor Tom Corbett in 2010, who cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget… By 2014, the condition of Philadelphia schools had become a national scandal.  Report after report recounted Philly schools with leaky roofs, busted windows, rodent and mold infestation, and no sports or athletic programs and no instrumental music classes.  Schools had to zero-out budgets for extracurricular activities, textbooks, and supplies. Most full-time school nurses, counselors, and librarians were let go, and class sizes ballooned to outrageous levels with 40-plus students in elementary classes and over 60 students in high school classes.”

And in 2012, the School Reform Commission hired the Boston Consulting Group to develop a Portfolio School Reform Plan that focused on closing schools and opening charters instead of increasing funding. Bryant describes the impact of rapid expansion of charter schools: “The booming market for charter schools in Philadelphia worsened the funding situation in the district schools… As public school money followed students moving to charter schools, at a cost of $8,569 per student, the public schools were unable to reduce costs due to staff, building and transportation fixed costs.”  Because the state reimburses schools at a flat rate for special education students, charters were able to skim off students with the least expensive disabilities, stranding blind and deaf students, and students with multiple handicaps in the public schools.

As the School District of Philadelphia emerges from state oversight in June 2018, it will be managed by a local school board appointed by the Mayor Jim Kenney. Bryant describes intense interest by local advocates suggesting names of potential board members: “A 13-member nominating panel made up of parents… educators, public school activists, former school officials, and local business and non-profit leaders has generated a list of 45 school board nominees from which Kenney will select nine appointees by the end of March.  The nominating panel received 500 applications… in less than two months and interviewed about 80 potential finalists.”

Among the challenges for the new local school board, however, will remain state government. While the state will no longer control the governance of the School District of Philadelphia, the state remains responsible for inequity that continues in school funding.  Although voters replaced Governor Tom Corbett with a Democrat, Tom Wolf, and although the legislature finally passed a new funding formula two years ago, the Philadelphia NewsMaddie Hanna reported last November that the state has chronically failed, despite state governance under the SRC, to address massive problems in Philadelphia: “(I)n the last decade, the amount of state money distributed to Philadelphia schools—about $1.5 billion—has remained nearly the same, when adjusted for inflation. In terms of per-pupil subsidy, Philadelphia ranked 225th among the common wealth’s 501 districts in the 2015-2016 school year; in 2010, it was No. 139.”

The new school board will also need to assess the role of Portfolio School Reform—the kind of plan that expands the number of charters even though charter schools in Pennsylvania operate as parasites eating their host.

In Appropriations Bill, Congress Impedes Betsy DeVos’s Plans

There are reasons to worry that the Trump administration is leading our government in the wrong direction—reasons to worry, for example, about a bellicose foreign policy, the destruction of the environment, insufficient health care for the poor, and the failure to maintain our national parks—but in the recent spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, the bill to provide programs through the end of September, Congress protected the U.S. Department of Education.

The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann identifies Winners and Losers in the Spending Bill. Betsy DeVos is one of seven losers: “The Education Secretary wanted to spend more than $1 billion promoting vouchers while slashing funding for the rest of her department by $3.6 billion, mostly by taking it from programs that help the poor. She also wanted to make big cuts to the Office for Civil Rights and eliminate grant programs that support student mental-health. The final deal basically does the opposite of everything she asked for.  Her department’s funding goes up by $3.9 billion, but she gets zero of the dollars she wanted for the school choice program.  There’s a $700 million increase in funding for a mental health program that will fund school counselors… The Office for Civil Rights, after-school programs and early-childhood education programs all get money she said she didn’t want.”

The outcome of the recent Congressional appropriations bill for 2018 shouldn’t cause advocates for public education to sit back and relax, however. Betsy DeVos is known for decades of dogged lobbying and philanthropy underwriting her one idea—school privatization, which she defines as “letting parents choose a school that meets each child’s needs.”  She has also been quite willing to follow President Trump’s orders to make her department smaller and to undo rules and regulations imposed during the Obama administration to protect students’ civil rights, regulate unscrupulous for-profit colleges, and rein in the private contractors hired by the Department of Education as processors of college loans and debt collectors.

Congress is, however, paying attention. Here is a prominent example of Congress acting—right in last week’s appropriations bill—when problems in the U.S. Department of Education are brought to the attention of key committee members.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that career Education Department staffers recently notified members of Congress that DeVos had begun reorganizing her department, eliminating a budget office that works closely with Congress, a reorganization that is said even to have concerned Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, responded by inserting a provision into the omnibus 2018 spending bill that says: “Provided, That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, none of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year may be used for any activity relating to implementing a reorganization that decentralizes, reduces the staffing level, or alters the responsibilities, structure, authority, or functionality of the Budget Service of the Department of Education, relative to the organization and operation of the Budget Service as in effect on January 1, 2018.”

Washington’s Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has worked tirelessly to rein in DeVos. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes Murray’s satisfaction that Congress has so far been able to defend much of the federal government’s role to support public education and protect the rights of all students: “Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state praised the bipartisan agreement to dismiss the ‘extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education… I’m proud to have worked with Republicans in Congress to flatly reject these ideas and increase funding for programs Secretary DeVos tried to cut, including K-12 education, civil rights protections, college affordability, and more.'”

Before detailing the spending levels Congress appropriated last week, it is important to put all this into perspective.  According to a November 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spending by states and local school districts, which together have over ninety percent of the fiscal responsibility for public schools, remains lower in 29 states than before the Great Recession hit in 2008. And reductions in federal funding have exacerbated the problems for states and local school districts: “Federal funding for most forms of state and local aid has fallen.  Federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions…. (N)on-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy.  Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

In the 2018 appropriations bill passed last week, Congress kept spending levels for essential federal public school support at or somewhat above what was spent last year.  Here is Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describing the funding levels Congress appropriated: “Lawmakers boosted overall spending at the Education Department by $2.6 billion over previously enacted levels in fiscal 2018, up to $70.9 billion.  It’s the highest-ever appropriation for discretionary spending at the Education Department on paper, although not when you adjust for inflation.  In addition, funding for Title I, the biggest pot of federal money for public schools, which is earmarked for disadvantaged students, is rising by $300 million from fiscal 2017 enacted spending, up to $15.8 billion.” The 2018 appropriations bill also includes an additional $299 million for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a boost for that essential and (still drastically underfunded) federal program to $13.1 billion.  In opposition to Trump’s and DeVos’s wishes, Congress increased the budget for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from $109 to $117 million.

DeVos had proposed to eliminate Title II, which school districts use to provide professional development for teachers, but Congress funded it at the same level as last year.  DeVos had also proposed eliminating a huge after-school program,the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, in which school districts collaborate with community agencies. These programs are often incorporated as an essential piece in wraparound, full-service Community Schools. Instead of eliminating 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Congress added $20 million to bring the total budget up to $1.2 billion.

In other programs that support children and therefore assist public schools, Congress added $2.37 billion to the Child Care Development Block Grant and added $610 million to support Head Start.

Ujifusa concludes: “Trump’s budget plan for fiscal 2018 would have cut discretionary education spending by $9.2 billion.  So the final appropriations for fiscal 2018 are a significant rebuke of sorts to the president’s education vision.  In fact, the bill Trump signed into law omitted the $250 million private school choice initiative the president and DeVos sought, as well as a $1 billion program designed to encourage open enrollment in districts.

All of this reflects the voices of so many teachers, parents and citizens who have relentlessly pushed back against the extreme anti-government, anti-public education policies of Betsy DeVos and who, this year, have articulated strong support for the institution of public education.  Please keep on keeping on.

In “60 Minutes” Interview, DeVos Demonstrates Failure to Grasp Her Own Department’s Mission

On Sunday evening, reporter Lesley Stahl interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview and read the transcript.

Betsy DeVos is not a person of action. In the interview she describes what she believes are the symptoms of education malaise across America and then she prescribes two treatments: more school choice and less federal regulation. DeVos understands herself as an undoer rather than a doer.  When Stahl asks her what she is most proud of accomplishing during her first year as Education Secretary, DeVos replies: “We’ve been looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.”

Yesterday President Donald Trump established a Federal Commission on School Safety, and he put DeVos in charge.  The Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker quotes DeVos on the urgent need for this new Commission: “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste… No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”

In the 60 Minutes interview, however, DeVos doesn’t appear to plan to do more than convene the school safety commission. Here is  the interchange between Stahl and DeVos on DeVos’s role as chair of the new school safety commission:

Stahl: “Do you see yourself as a leader in this—in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?”

DeVos : “I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing. See there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”

Stahl: “Do you feel a sense of urgency:”

DeVos: “Yes.”

Stahl: “Cause this sounds like talking. Instead of acting.”

DeVos: “No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.”

When Stahl asks DeVos directly whether teachers should be armed, a position Trump has endorsed but the majority of teachers have strongly opposed, DeVos waffles: “That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in this way. But for those who are—who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered. But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.”

In perhaps the most important part of the interview, Stahl probes Secretary DeVos’s ideas about what can be done to improve public education in America. DeVos pronounces what has become her standard answer: “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there.  I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices.  We need all parents to have those choices.”

Stahl follows up with the essential question: “Okay.  But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working?  What about those kids?”  “Why take money away from the school that’s not working? ”

DeVos answers that school choice imposes competition, which, she believes improves schools: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in…school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems… Well, in places where there have been—where there is—a lot of choice that’s been introduced… studies show that then there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually—the results get better, as well.”

Stahl: “Now, has that happened in Michigan?… We’re in Michigan.  This is your home state… Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”

DeVos: “I don’t know.  Overall, I—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”

Stahl: “The public schools here are doing worse than they did… Have you seen the really bad schools?  Maybe to try to figure out what they’re doing?”

DeVos: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

Stahl: “Maybe you should.”

DeVos: “Maybe I should.  Yes.”

About the undoing of the federal role in education, what DeVos calls federal overreach, she is clearer: “Yeah. We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.” While DeVos has been very busy weakening regulation of for-profit colleges, federal student loan processors and debt collection agencies, the discussion in the 60 Minutes interview centers on the weakening of civil rights protections for students in K-12 schools. Stahl mentions DeVos’s rescinding the guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, weakening a rule to prevent disproportionate discipline applied across racial groups, changing Title IX guidelines to focus more on the rights of the accused rather than the accuser.

DeVos seems unable to grasp that the protection of students’ rights by law must apply—and has always historically applied—to protected classes of students, for example, by race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender expression, and religion.  Here is DeVos responding to Stahl’s questions about the Department of Education’s designated role of protecting students’ civil rights: “We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment.  And all students means all students… Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids… I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”

When Stahl presses DeVos to clarify exactly how she understands the rules and how the Department of Education will ensure that the Department will fully enforce civil rights protections of the rights of the victims in sexual assault cases, DeVos replies: “I don’t know.  I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

None of this, of course, is new or shocking. Our Secretary of Education is extremely consistent. She is an educational libertarian who once declared in a major policy address: “Government really sucks.”  However, in the area of K-12 schools, there are several primary roles assigned to the U.S. Department of Education that are being undermined or ignored under DeVos’s leadership.  DeVos is systematically undoing the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

And she is not doing anything to address the issues we know are denying opportunity for millions of our nation’s poorest children.  In a nation that is increasingly segregated by income—with the rich sequestered in privileged suburbs and the poor trapped in particular neighborhoods of our cities and in remote rural areas— DeVos has done nothing to increase Title I, the Department’s primary program for helping schools that serve concentrations of poor children. Nor has she ever discussed ways the Department of Education could incentivize state governments to improve the equitable distribution of state aid to schools. Nor has she ever mentioned partnering with other Departments to develop multi-pronged efforts to ameliorate concentrated family poverty itself.

Her interview with 60 Minutes pretty much describes DeVos’s philosophy of government: undoing and not doing. She fails to grasp that in education, the definition of justice is to distribute opportunity fairly to all children. Government, through the law and the administration of the law by executive departments like Education, is supposed to help with that.  Individuals—the people DeVos always mentions—lack the power to secure justice for themselves.  And in DeVos’s imagined ideal education marketplace, the least powerful individuals will continue to lack the power to compete. DeVos clearly does not grasp that government agencies like the Department of Education are charged with the mission of protecting, by law, the children who have the least power.

In The Public Interest Releases New Report on Widespread Financial Mess in California Charters

Today’s subject is the charter school sector in California, a microcosm of widespread problems with charter schools across the states. Many of us are missing the seriousness of the charter school scandal across the United States. Because education is governed pretty much by the state constitution, activists are in the habit of following the education news in their own state and assuming that schools elsewhere are the problem of that other state. This all makes it very easy to ignore the scope of violations of students’ rights and the amount of tax dollars being stolen by unscrupulous charter school operators. Reading about what’s happening in another state’s charter schools helps one grasp that problems of charter schools are widespread.*

Yesterday, In the Public Interest (ITPI) published Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools, a fine new report clarifying the magnitude of charter school problems in California: “A modern gold rush continues to sweep California. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have increased in number by more than 900 percent in the past two decades to over 1,200 schools today, the most in the nation. Charter school funding (in California), including local, state, and federal expenditures, now tops $6 billion annually—this on top of the hundreds of millions of public dollars and publicly subsidized funds the state’s charter schools receive each year to lease, build, or buy buildings.”

And it is not only that money flows out of the public schools to fund privatization, but also that charter schools in California—as in many other states—are poorly regulated: “Despite this substantial investment, governments at all levels are unable to proactively monitor (for fraud and waste) the private groups that operate charter schools…. Most public school districts aren’t given adequate resources to oversee operators, especially large charter management organizations (CMOs), while all lack the statutory authority to effectively monitor and hold charter schools accountable.”

ITPI’s new report identifies three categories of fraud and waste:

  • “The most straightforward type of charter school fraud is the illegal practice of using public funds directly for personal gain.”  For example, the founder of the Celerity Education Group in Los Angeles used public dollars to buy luxurious meals, hotel stays, limousine trips and salon visits.
  • “Some charter school operators have used public funds to illegally support their own personal businesses.”  For example, the Bay Area’s Tri-Valley Learning Corporation was discovered covering up conflicts of interest, misappropriation of funds, and weak internal financial controls that allowed the CEO to divert $2.7 million without any record of the spending.
  • Finally there is widespread basic mismanagement. Beacon Classical Academy eventually lost its charter for failure to educate students, faulty financial audits, violations of the open-meeting-law, and fire code violations.

Despite that California’s legislature has “made limited attempts to increase oversight,” there are not nearly enough auditors to monitor charter schools for fraudulent financial practices, and state officials lack adequate authority for investigation unless serious violations have been alleged. Charter school operators are able to manipulate regulations to limit transparency. In California local school boards or country boards of education function as charter school authorizers, but if a school district or county board rejects a charter school application, state law permits the California State Board of Education to overrule the local agency’s decision.

ITPI’s report lists individual schools that have been caught, punished or closed in each category—turning public money into personal gain, self-dealing, and mismanaging public money and schools.  The report also includes an appendix that identifies the name of each charter school, its location, and the amount of money stolen or misspent.

Last November’s report from the Network for Public Education (NPE) is a wonderful companion to ITPIs new report. The early chapters in Charters and Consequences describe NPE Executive Director, Carol Burris’s visits to California to investigate abuses by charter schools. Her stories describe not only financial mismanagement and fraud by currently operating California charter schools but also educational malpractice—drop-in centers in strip malls where even 12-year-old students stop by occasionally to talk with their supposed teachers—and tiny school districts that sponsor satellite drop-in schools in far away urban school districts (that are never informed about the siting of these charter schools within their school district boundaries) in order to tap into funds California awards to sponsors for what is assumed will be oversight. Oversight, however, is what is lacking; nobody is looking out for the needs of students or for the interests of California taxpayers.

ITPI’s Fraud and Waste in California’s Charter Schools concludes: “Only the tip of the iceberg is visible, but this much is known: total alleged and confirmed fraud and waste in California’s charter schools has reached over $149 million.”

*Here is the question that comes up every time we talk about charter schools.  Aren’t charter schools really a kind of public school? The answer is NO.  Charter schools are a form of private contracting by a state or state-approved charter school authorizer. Even if your school district is the authorizer, your school district is contracting with a private provider with its own privately appointed board of directors. Proponents of charter schools try to BRAND charter schools as “public charter schools,” and they justify the branding with the fact that charter schools are funded largely with tax dollars. But the tax dollars are always paid to a private operator. That operator may be nonprofit or for-profit, but even if it is a nonprofit, it may well be subcontracting the operation of the school to a for-profit. By definition, however, charter schools are a form of private contracting. Someone other than a public school district is basically hired to run the charter school.