Despite ECOT’s Death, Ohio’s Unscrupulous Charter Schools Gobble Up State and Local Tax Dollars

Despite the death last January of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s charter schools continue to suck money out of their host school districts, and, at the same time, many fail to educate the students for whom they are responsible.

The giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was finally shut down after the state tried to collect $80 million the Department of Education calculated ECOT had overcharged taxpayers for the past two school years alone.  ECOT, which had been billing taxpayers (on a per-pupil basis) for thousands of phantom students the school had enrolled but who were not logging on to use the school’s curriculum, couldn’t pay the bill when the state demanded that the school return the money.  ECOT descended into bankruptcy.

Because of the way Ohio funds charter schools, not only the state but also the local school district loses money when a student leaves for a charter school. In Ohio the money follows the child to the charter right out of the general fund of the school district in which the child resides.  Many districts lose more money to charters than they receive in state aid.  As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports: “Ohio does not directly fund charter schools, instead subtracting the money from individual districts based on where a charter student lives. Traditional public school officials and advocates have complained for years that the system also diverts local tax revenue to charter schools along with state funding. Siegel quotes Columbus, Ohio school board member Dominic Paretti, who says ECOT gobbled up enough funds to have used up several local school property tax levies: “If you add up all that local share of dollars that has flowed to ECOT from Columbus schools’ taxpayers, it would erase the need for us to possibly ever have to go to those levies.”

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow remains in the news because it will take years to wind up its affairs. Also Ohio waits for a final decision by the Ohio Supreme Court on the matter of ECOT’s final legal appeal to stay in business. In the meantime, Innovation Ohio has now calculated the total amount ECOT sucked out of  local school districts’ funds between 2012 and 2018.  During the six year period, for example, Columbus lost $62,897,188 to ECOT; Cleveland lost $39,405,981; and Dayton lost $20,200,830. Over the six year period, ECOT drained a total of $590,954,999 from Ohio’s school districts.

Many people push back with the argument that the money should follow the child; after all, the school district no longer has to pay expenses for that student. In a new report published by In the Public Interest, however, political economist Gordon Lafer dissects the stranded costs the child’s public school district must continue to cover: “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.”

The Ohio State Board of Education, which has been increasingly proactive, voted last Tuesday to toughen the rules that regulate another of the state’s notorious charter school sectors: the Dropout Recovery Charter Schools—schools which have been held to far more lax academic standards than traditional public schools or other charter schools because they are said to serve students in trouble.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The state school board on Tuesday passed higher standards for… the nearly 90 dropout intervention charter schools statewide, as Ohio continues refining how to measure schools that help the most struggling and at-risk students earn diplomas. The tougher rules—covering graduation rates and which schools qualify for the easier dropout school report cards—continue Ohio’s gradual crackdown on charter schools that have skated by for years despite poor results.”  Until last week, the state required Dropout Recovery Charters to graduate 8 percent of their students in 4 years; as of last week, the State Board will now require 25 percent to graduate in 4 years, or the school will be held accountable.

To qualify as a dropout recovery school, the old rules said that a school must enroll at least 50 percent of its students who are far behind their peers and in danger of dropping out. Last week the State Board changed the rules to demand that Dropout Recovery Charters will need to prove (in 2019-2020) that 65 percent of their students are in real academic danger and need special services. In 2020-2021 that requirement will increase to 75 percent of the school’s students.  In other words, these schools won’t be able to pad their graduation rates and average test scores with students who don’t fit their mission as schools for “dropout recovery.”

Schools that fail to comply with the new standards will be in danger of closure, and their sponsors’ ratings will also be at risk.  Is there an urgent need for such reforms?  O’Donnell explains: “Invictus High School of Cleveland barely graduates 12 percent of its students in four years.” And yet there have been no penalties, and public funding (combined state and local dollars) have flowed freely to this deplorable school until now.

In what has become a series of scathing columns, retired editorial page director for the Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes the legislative corruption that has fed the growth of a poorly regulated charter school sector in an all-Red state without any kind of checks and balances: “Legislators in Ohio have long stood accused of serving not their constituents, but the people who fund their campaigns. But in the last eight years, House Republicans seem to have reached new lows in their ethical depravity… In April, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned in the wake of revelations he may be the target of an FBI probe… including ties involving the insidious payday lending industry. Before that, the House was ruled by Bill Batchelder, who spent four years protecting some of the most unprincipled bottom-feeders ever to prowl Statehouse corridors. Then, lo and behold, some of those who received favorable treatment, including the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, became clients of the Batchelder lobbying firm… ECOT was once the nation’s largest online charter school.  And arguably its worst… From 2001 to 2016, ECOT raked in more than $1 billion in taxpayer money.  In return, ECOT founder Bill Lager and his flunkies contributed more than $2 million to campaigns of Ohio politicians, a huge majority of that going to Republicans.  That money seemed to buy protection from a legislature that required only token policing of online charters.”

What’s clear in Ohio is that cleaning up this mess will require a long time and some very significant political change.

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Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.
  • “High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Mike Rose: How “School Failure” Narrative of “A Nation at Risk” Has Undermined Public Schools

I can’t bring myself to think of Naomi Klein in the same category as Mike Rose, one of my favorite education writers. They are important but very different writers.  There is one similarity, however.  In 2007, Klein responded to Hurricane Katrina and other natural catastrophes around the world with the publication of a blockbuster, thesis-driven social science analysis, The Shock Doctrine, in which she highlighted the swift takeover of New Orleans’ public schools after the hurricane as the very definition of her idea that a crisis from a natural disaster will often be grabbed as an opportunity by business interests looking for a profit. And this week, Rose explains in a new blog post, that his extraordinary book, Possible Lives, was his own response to a “shock doctrine” crisis created by the inflammatory language of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Klein explains “the shock doctrine” in the context of what can happen to a public school system when the interests of privatization are pitched as the best response to a catastrophe: “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’ schools 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.”  (The Shock Doctrine, p. 5)

One person who absolutely absorbed the capitalist possibilities of Hurricane Katrina was a prominent policy maker, who had by, 2010 when he spoke out about it, become our U.S. Education Technocrat-in-Chief, Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community….” A crisis. A disaster. A time ripe for throwing it all away and trying something new.

In his new blog post—to mark the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Mike Rose explains that he undertook Possible Lives as a response to A Nation at Risk—to the exaggerated, urgent, fevered language in the Reagan era report’s introduction: “Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures.”  Rose continues: “(O)ne hard lesson learned from A Nation at Risk is that the way problems are represented has major consequences.  This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from A Nation at Risk.”

Rose pulls out from the opening two paragraphs of A Nation at Risk the language he describes as framed precisely to generate a sense of educational catastrophe.  He quotes from the opening paragraphs::

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves… We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

What has followed for 35 years now Rose describes as a response to an existential education crisis created entirely by language carefully chosen and narratively framed to motivate our society to do something radical.  Our response? Test and punish via No Child Left Behind. Grading schools and teachers by their students’ aggregate test scores, including A-F grades imposed by states on their school districts and individual schools. Closing so-called failing schools. And all sorts of school privatization via charter schools, and virtual schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account neo-vouchers—all to give children an escape from their so-called “failing” public schools.

Rose responded to A Nation at Risk‘s manipulation of language and public opinion—intended to create the impression that U.S. public schools were in crisis—by traveling the country for four years, visiting America’s best classrooms, and narrating the promising story of America’s public schools and their teachers. Possible Lives was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. It is one of the most inspiring books ever written about what actually happens inside our public school classrooms.  The fact that classrooms are places most of the public never visits likely contributes to people’s manipulation through crisis-driven rhetoric. While A Nation at Risk turned the public attention to an obsessive examination of outcomes based on standardized test scores and technocratic fixes—stuff that can be easily reported and statistically processed, Rose takes readers right into classrooms to watch how teachers respond to children, how they challenge adolescents to puzzle out and reason, how they design projects that fascinate students and pique their imaginations.

Looking back at A Nation at Risk, Rose summarizes the difference between the language of its introduction—designed to terrify us all if we don’t do something quick—and the rest of the report: “So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Los of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable aims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote ‘life-long learning,’ and to assure ‘a solid high-school education’ for all.  But few people read the full report.  What was picked up was the dire language of the opening; and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the (more promising) recommendations of the report.”

Rose references a recent A Nation of Risk 35th anniversary story by Anya Kamenetz on National Public Radio: “Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of A Nation at Risk and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education ‘on the front page.’ They succeeded big time.”

Rose pulls out his own warning from Possible Lives about this kind of language: “It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture (our institution of public education) is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction.  So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools….”  Prophetic words from a book written in 1995 and reprinted in 2006.

Rose concludes his recent blog post with this warning: “One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy?”

I’ll add that in Possible Lives and the rest of his fine books, Rose has not only used language with precision, but also with a sense of compassion and human understanding. He shows us what happens at school—for children and adolescents and their teachers—without emphasizing the preoccupation of the school reformers—the technocratic measures and incentives and ratings that permeate our society and that always situate our schools in perpetual data-driven competition.

Please read Mike Rose’s new blog post.  And consider adding Possible Lives to your reading this summer.

U. of Chicago Researchers Document Damage to Communities and Students from 2013 School Closures

Ever since Chicago closed 50 schools in May of 2013, we have listened to teachers worrying about the effects on the children who were transferred to so-called welcoming schools. And we have continued to hear laments from the community after neighborhood institutions were shuttered.

Corporate school reformers always claimed that school disruption would save us from the old 20th century status quo. Disruptive school turnarounds—fire the principal, fire half the teachers, charterize or privatize the school, close the school—were the final prescription in the No Child Left Behind Act as the supposed cure for low performance. They were also at the heart of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

In Chicago, where a growing charter school sector has been actively competing with neighborhood schools, competition from privatized charters has exacerbated an already-declining school enrollment.  School closures in Chicago have been justified both as the way to reform struggling schools and as an efficiency—saving money by consolidating an ever smaller school district enrollment in fewer schools.

Until now, academic research about the implications of school closings has been negative, but very careful to avoid overstating its negative conclusions.  Last May the National Education Policy Center published a policy brief which declared: “The relatively limited evidence base suggests that school closures are not a promising strategy for remedying low student performance… School closures have at best weak and decidedly mixed benefits; at worst they have detrimental repercussions for students if districts do not ensure that seats at higher-performing schools are available for transfer students. In districts where such assignments are in short or uncertain supply, ‘closure and transfer’ is a decidedly undesirable option.”

But scathing new research last week now paints a much bleaker picture. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a new and sharply critical report five years after Chicago Public Schools’ massive 2013 school closures. The report condemns school closure (one of the prescriptions for disruptive turnaround) precisely because school closures in Chicago have proven so terribly disruptive for children teachers, and communities.

The Consortium describes Chicago Public Schools’ declared purpose for closing schools: “Although cost savings was the primary stated reason for closing schools, city and district officials saw this as an opportunity to move students into higher-rated schools and provide them with better academic opportunities. Underutilized schools, the district argued, were not serving students well.”

But what has happened over five years has not fulfilled district leaders’ expectations.  Instead we read about the destruction of trust and the fragile institutions of school and community: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships, and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Students and staff appreciated the extra resources, technology, programs, and the expansion of Safe Passage, although they wished for longer-term investments because student needs did not end after one year. Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

While test scores dropped in the short term (and lagged for much longer in math) for students who were transferred to new schools and also for students already enrolled in welcoming schools, the academic impact was exacerbated by the unanticipated realities of the disruption. During the 2012-2013 school year, even as the District held hearings about pending school closures, more students than usual transferred out of the schools scheduled to become welcoming schools. These students seemingly transferred out to avoid what was scheduled to happen in their schools.

The magnitude of the disruption is reflected in the number of students and teachers who were affected: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”

Consortium researchers conducted qualitative interviews with educators and students in six of the welcoming schools. They identify themes running through the responses from across the six schools.  First, “Planning for a merger of this magnitude was highly complex and involved a great deal of adaptation. School leaders said they did not know how to balance the need to plan with the recognition that the process, in reality, was unfolding with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Planning was also difficult because staff only had a few months and they did not always know how many of the closed school students would enroll in their schools, nor their final budgets.”  Remember that Chicago Public Schools allocates funding on a per-student basis.

While some welcoming schools were awarded STEM or International Baccalaureate programs—which have been sustained over the five years that have followed the school closures, “Many… initial supports… were hard to sustain after the first year… due to budget cuts in subsequent years and the end of the one-time influx of resources. An exception has been the expansion of a program that “hires Safe Passage workers to stand along designated walking routes during before-and after-school hours.” Everyone appreciates the addition of this program, which the school district has sustained.

What nobody in the school administration seems to have appreciated, however, is the social impact and emotional distress among students and educators in the schools which were closed, in the welcoming schools as well, and in the primarily African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where most of the schools were closed: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school. Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”

The report continues: “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult. Prior to the actual merger, school communities said they felt as if they were competing with one another to stay open, which made accepting the loss that much more difficult. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

In a timely coincidence, the Partnership for the Future of Learning has released a nine-minute film, Kings and Queens, featuring Irene Robinson, a Chicago grandmother and activist, who describes, from the point of view of her family, the 2013 closure of their neighborhood school. Robinson describes the same grieving process that is documented by the U. of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s new report.  She tells of the loss of Overton Elementary School: what the school meant to three generations of her family—herself, her six children, her 18 grandchildren—and to her community. “We cooked there. We had holiday meals there with the children and the parents. We had GED classes in our school for the parents.”

Chicago Public Schools, a district suffering from declining enrollment overall, has exacerbated the decline of its neighborhood schools by permitting uncontrolled growth of charter schools which compete with the neighborhood schools for enrollment. And Chicago Public Schools has already begun the process of  closing several more neighborhood schools. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports on the reaction of Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, to the new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: “CPS’s current Schools Chief Janice Jackson called what happened ‘unacceptable.’ But said the outcome will not deter her from closing schools in the future. At the time of the closings in 2013, Jackson was principal of a West Side high school. ‘We acknowledge that it was imperfect,’ she said. ‘For me, I can focus on the learnings that came out of that.'”

Karp continues: “After taking a five-year break from school closings, the Chicago Board of Education voted in February to shutter one elementary school and four high schools. Jackson is allowing most current students to stay until they graduate and she is providing extra support for students before and after they graduate.”

Teachers’ Walkouts Define the Danger of the Corporate Agenda to Destroy Public Education

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education.  Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.

Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?…  Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC.  In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)

Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.”  The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.

Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)

The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots.  We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009.  Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.

Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”

The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers.  And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.

Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)

DeVos Declares: In Public Schools, the Child Becomes a Constituent, the State Replaces the Family

Uh-oh!  Last week Betsy DeVos got in trouble again. Every time she speaks about her work at the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos gets herself in trouble.  We’ll see if it happens again today as she testifies in Congress before the House Education Committee.

A little review:  The last time DeVos embarrassed herself was in March, when she went on 60 Minutes, where she told Leslie Stahl how education should be improved:  “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.” After Stahl followed up, asking DeVos about how to improve the public schools in the neighborhoods where families live, DeVos pronounced her standard, convoluted answer: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in… school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.”

Last Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the same day North Carolina’s public school teachers were protesting in Raleigh about their salaries and state per-pupil school funding which remains lower than before the Great Recession in 2008, DeVos went to New York City, where she spoke to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes as an organization “which supports charities that work with the children of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.”

Not surprisingly, last week in her NYC address, DeVos extolled religious education. In this speech, however, she went a little farther than usual to denigrate public schools and explain her own commitment to the rights of what she believes is society’s primary institution—the family: “Pope Leo the 13th wrote: ‘The contention that the civil government should—at its option—intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.’  Pope Leo was right!  Government can’t know the needs of individuals better than a parent, a pastor or a friend.  That’s why, when it comes to education, the family is—and always will be—the ‘first school.’  Parents hold the inalienable right to decide what learning environment best meets their children’s individual needs… There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home; the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family.”

As we have learned, DeVos is an educational libertarian who disdains the role of government. You’ll remember that back in 2015, in another speech, DeVos declared: “Government really sucks.”

DeVos typically presents her commitment to school choice in the language of parents’ rights.  What she always neglects to acknowledge, however, is that public schools are the institution through which our society can protect parents’ and children’s rights through civil law—by ensuring that public schools must serve poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient.  And in situations where government fails to protect the rights of children, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide.  There are legal mechanisms in place to ensure that families can secure the services to which their children have a right: elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts. Laws and pubic oversight are the way government protects parents’ rights.

You may remember that in the March, 60 Minutes interview , Leslie Stahl also asked DeVos whether as Secretary of Education, DeVos had ever visited struggling public schools for the purpose of investigating strategies to improve the way those schools serve children. DeVos confessed that she has never “intentionally” visited struggling public schools: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”  Stahl challenged, “Maybe you should.” And DeVos confessed: “Maybe I should. Yes.”

However, during her trip to New York City last week, DeVos chose not to visit any public schools.  In the nation’s largest public school district, DeVos could easily have arranged to visit any kind of public school—schools that serve our nation’s poorest children and other schools that serve the privileged—high and low scoring schools—racially and economically integrated or racially and economically segregated schools. She could have visited some of the nation’s model full-service, wraparound Community Schools, which feature child care and social services for families along with medical, dental and mental health clinics right at school. But instead DeVos looked for her favorite kind of schools, religious schools that are not affected by the laws and regulations she is charged, as Secretary of Education, with implementing.

Valerie Strauss describes the schools DeVos visited: “DeVos, a longtime supporter of religious education and public funding of religious schools, visited two orthodox Jewish schools, the elite Manhattan High School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah Boys School. The schools did not appear on her official schedule until reporters asked about her New York trip.”

What should be our reaction?  The Washington Post‘s Helaine Olen believes that, despite our exhaustion from months’ of tracking DeVos, we still need to summon outrage: “While in New York, DeVos did not visit a single public school… DeVos, however, did make time to tour a pair of private Orthodox Jewish day schools. She also made time to speak at a breakfast sponsored by two charities that promote Catholic parochial education. Let me repeat that. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the nation’s largest public school district, one responsible for educating 1.1 million students annually, and didn’t bother to check out even one public school. What could she be thinking? According to the Education Department’s own data, there are more than 50 million students attending U.S. public schools during the 2017-2018 school year. At last count, only 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren—about 5.7 million—attend private schools… If DeVos gets her way, the public-education system in the United States would be smaller, funded less, and all around worse than it is now.  DeVos doesn’t want to inform herself on the full range of problems facing American education. She thinks she already knows the answers—and those answers, just coincidentally, coincide with her own religious and conservative political views. That she is secretary of education is nothing short of an abomination.”