Public School Closures in Oakland: Another Example of Failed School Reform and Charter School Expansion

I am grateful that last Sunday the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson recounted the long, sad story of the school closings in California’s Oakland Unified School District. Oakland has universal school choice, and this fall, students in two of Oakland’s now shuttered public schools had to find new schools elsewhere in the school district—with five additional public schools to be closed at the end of the current school year.  As Wilson explains: “The district has… been whiplashed over the years, by education trends and population changes, leaving many schools under annual threat of school closure.”

We have been watching this story develop for years.  Wilson reports: “By 2003, with the district facing a roughly $35 million budget deficit, the state Department of Education took over the operation of Oakland’s public schools, laying off hundreds of teachers and eventually shuttering more than two dozen schools. The state’s day-to-day management ended six years later, but the education department still has what is effectively veto power over fiscal decisions.  At the time of the takeover, the state extended the district a $100 million line of credit, which has yet to be paid off entirely. The district’s uncertain finances and poor performance also opened the door for experimentation from wealthy, mostly White philanthropists with no ties to Oakland. One initiative was the ‘small schools’ movement, financed in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The idea was to break up big campuses into more intimate places for learning. The money—about $25 million before it ran out—helped open about two dozen schools. But the state administrator at the time closed 14 others over several years.”

Wilson continues: “More lasting was the charter school movement. At the time, billionaires Mike Bloomberg and the late Eli Broad spent tens of millions of dollars promoting charter schools nationally, including large sums in Oakland… But in a state that funds districts by student, every pupil who enrolled in a charter school meant money lost to the broader public education system.”

Gentrification is also implicated.  Today’s school closings—two this year and five before school begins next school year are all located in poorer African American neighborhoods. Wilson explains: “Here in Oakland… the school discussion implicates race…. White gentrification hovers over the East Bay…. The traditional dividing line—Interstate 580—splits wealthy Oakland hills from the struggling ‘flatlands’ where Parker and other affected schools are located.”

All of these problems have been visible for years. Jerry Brown was Mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007 and he served as Governor of California from 2011 to 2019. Brown remains an unabashed supporter of charter schools. In fact he started two charter schools himself. Here is EdSource‘s Luis Freedberg: “Brown is unique among California’s governors—and probably governors anywhere—in that he is the founder of two charter schools, the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts.  He told us he has raised ‘millions and millions of dollars’ to start them and keep them going.” EdSource asked Brown if charter schools don’t pose a funding problem for a school district’s public schools. Freedberg recounts Brown’s answer: “Brown opposes that notion, even in places like Los Angeles and Oakland, which in his words have ‘so many charter schools, and they don’t have enough funds.’ He acknowledged that is a ‘troublesome problem.’ Nonetheless, he said, ‘because I think charter schools are challenging, I’ve resisted more onerous rules that quite frankly are designed to reduce charter schools in the guise of making them more accountable.'”

So how much fiscal pressure do charter schools pose for the public school districts where they are located?  In a huge, 2018, study for In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents the annual $57.3 million loss of public school funding to the charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District: “(W)ith a combined district and charter student population of over 52,000 in 2016-17—(Oakland) boasts the highest concentration of charter schools in the state, with 30 percent of pupils attending charter schools.” “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Lafer describes the consequences of marketplace school choice in the Oakland Unified School District: “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”

California blogger Tom Ultican has documented the investment and influence of wealthy philanthropists promoting the expansion of charter schools in Oakland: “The map of charter schools in Oakland and proposed school closings shows that both are… in the minority dominated flats (the low lying area between the bay and the hills).  With all of these closings, residents in the flats may no longer have a traditional public school serving their community.  Much of this can be laid at the door step of the six billionaire ‘education reformers’ living across the bay—Reed Hastings (Netflix), Arthur Rock (Intel), Carrie Walton Penner (Walmart), Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Doris Fisher (The Gap).  Reed Hastings established America’s first charter management organization (CMO) in Oakland. There are now six Aspire charter schools serving Oakland families.”  Ultican adds: “Along with these billionaires, New Yorker Michael Bloomberg and Tulsa billionaire Stacey Shusterman have joined in the spending to sway Oakland’s school board elections.”

It is not as though nobody has investigated the impact of widespread public school closings on the neighborhoods where safe and long treasured institutions are shut down.  In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year. Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 school reform project had driven a decade-long explosion in the number of charter schools. An important difference, however, is that in Chicago the school district did try to protect the students whose neighborhood public schools were closing by designating specific welcoming schools.  In Oakland, families are left to find their own schools due to universal school choice.

Despite Chicago’s efforts to manage the school closures, however, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “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.” “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… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students.  Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

Far-Right Organizations Work With Ohio Legislators to Privatize Public Education

Ohio is overrun with far-right advocates pushing the privatization of public education through the expansion of both vouchers and charter schools and with people spreading alarm about public school teaching of divisive subjects. This should not be surprising in our notoriously gerrymandered Republican state legislature. Here are some of the extremist organizations whose lobbyists counsel our legislators, help them draft legislation, and make political donations.

The Buckeye Institute

Sourcewatch describes this Ohio organization: “The Buckeye Institute…  is a right-wing advocacy group based in Ohio. It is a member of the $120 million-a-year State Policy Network (SPN), a web of state pressure groups that denote themselves as “think tanks” and drive a right-wing agenda in statehouses nationwide.”  Sourcewatch further describes the State Policy Network: “SPN groups  operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support.”

On Tuesday of last week, The Buckeye Institute released a new report outlining its strategy for helping students “regain lost learning” during the pandemic:  “In its new policy report… The Buckeye Institute outlines how empowering parents, funding students first, and enhancing school choice can counteract the ill effects the pandemic had on learning loss for Ohio’s K-12 students.”  While The Buckeye Institute claims to focus on individual students in its response to the past two years of COVID disruption, the new report doesn’t mention students at all. There is nothing about giving students extra attention in smaller classes or more enrichments and activities to make school exciting or more counselors and mental health support. Instead the report addresses the more abstract issues of school ownership and governance. In essence universal marketplace school choice via vouchers is the solution: “The report offers four commonsense policy solutions that will improve the K-12 academic experience:

  • “Broad-Based Education Savings Accounts: Create a broad-based ESA initiative to reform Ohio’s education system and its long-standing government-run education monopoly…
  • “Universal Open Enrollment: Make it easier for all families to send students to their school of choice by requiring all Ohio public schools to participate in inter-district open enrollment.
  • “Expanded Tax Credit Scholarships: Increase the maximum tax credit from its current $750 limit to $2,500 to make it easier for grant organizations to offer larger scholarships (vouchers) to more students in need.
  • “Enhanced Spending Transparency: Require all public school districts to operate more transparently by sharing their spending data with parents in Ohio Checkbook.”

The Center for Christian Virtue

The Center for Christian Virtue recently purchased an office building across the street from the Statehouse in Columbus to bring the organization right into the center of power in Ohio. One of the Center for Christian Virtue’s new initiatives is to help locate private religious schools in churches—schools that qualify for tax-funded EdChoice vouchers. For the Statehouse News Bureau, Jo Ingles reports: “A new, private school has been commissioned in Columbus, but it’s not like many others… Inside the walls of the Memorial Baptist Church on the west side of Columbus, classrooms normally used for Sunday church services are being readied for kindergarten through second grade students who have been going to local public schools. That’s according to Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, a conservative Christian organization. He said seven churches came together to create this new model school. This is a pilot project for the Center for Christian Virtue. And the group said it’s just the first of many that will use church facilities for a private Christian school.”  “Children who enroll in the school this year can use state money through Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program to pay for their tuition because they will fit the income or school attendance area guidelines… Other Christian-based schools are now receiving money from the EdChoice Scholarship program.”

Ingles adds that, “Baer’s organization is leading the charge for majority Republicans state lawmakers to adopt a bill, commonly called the “backpack” bill, that would expand the Ed Choice Scholarship even more to allow any student, regardless of income or where they live, to use public money for private schools. ”

For the Ohio Capital Journal, Zurie Pope reports that the Center for Christian Virtue has gone farther than merely supporting HB 290, the Backpack Bill.  Members of the Center for Christian Virtue’s staff helped write the language of the bill: “(D)ocuments obtained by the Ohio Capital Journal through a public records request reveal CCV’s involvement in HB 290 has been more extensive than previously known, and included the advice and promotion of outside groups like Heritage Action and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This past February, a legislative aide for McClain (one of the bill’s sponsors) emailed a draft of the bill to CCV legislative liaison Nilani Jawahar and CCV lobbyist and Ohio Christian Education Network Assistant Director Corine Vidales.”  The Ohio Capital Journal‘s report also names so-called academic research the drafters of the Backpack Bill considered as they were drafting the bill: “Both studies were created by EdChoice, an Indiana-based think tank that advocates for school choice. Ohio’s private school voucher program is also called EdChoice.” Finally, explains Zurie Pope, of the Ohio Capital Journal, the executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, Troy McIntosh, “sent a draft of the bill to Stephanie Kruez, a regional director for Heritage Action, the policy arm of the right-wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation.”

The Thomas Fordham Institute

The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports that the Thomas Fordham Institute has joined a lawsuit pushing to overturn reasonable and sensible new rules recently imposed by the U.S. Department of Education to improve oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program. The Fordham Institute functions not only as an Ohio think tank, but also as an approved sponsor of its own Ohio charter schools. Tebben explains: “An Ohio group that supports charter schools has joined in a lawsuit fighting against what they say is ‘hostility’ in rule-making by the U.S. Department of Education. The D.C. and Ohio-based Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, spoke as a ‘charter school sponsor’ for the state of Ohio, arguing that rules regulating enrollment and use of charter schools… will ‘disadvantage some or all of the charter schools sponsored by Fordham’… The part of the rule that charter school advocates have a problem with states charter schools would need to prove public schools are over-enrolled, and encourage but don’t require ‘community collaboration’ with fellow school districts.”  The lawsuit Fordham joined claims: “The most successful charter schools are those that provide educational alternatives to under-enrolled schools, not those that simply house excess numbers of students.”  Ohio’s Fordham Institute is supporting the idea that charter schools should operate in competition, not collaboration, with the public school districts in which they are located.  Neither does Fordham worry about the areas in Ohio where too many low quality charter schools with fancy advertising are sucking essential dollars from the public schools that serve the majority of the community’s students.

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill recently published a detailed set of priorities the Fordham Institute will be advocating this winter when the legislature begins to debate Ohio’s FY 2024-2025 biennial state budget.  Churchill explains that Fordham will lobby to expand the charter school funding formula, expand special targeted assistance for charter schools, raise the facilities alliance to cover building costs, and support a credit enhancement to make building restoration and construction more affordable for charter schools. Fordham will also lobby to make EdChoice vouchers available for all students living in families with income up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level and allow brand new private schools to receive publicly funded vouchers from students even in a private school’s first year of operation. To its credit, Fordham will push to make the academic quality of private schools accepting vouchers more transparent by requiring, for the first time, private schools to release standardized test scores. Fordham will also lobby to make interdistrict public school choice universal across all the districts in the state, removing discretion for local school boards to decide whether to participate.

Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative

In the first of an important three-part expose for SALON last spring, Kathryn Joyce outlined the fast-growing initiative of Michigan’s conservative Christian Hillsdale College to disseminate its Classical Academy curriculum—which is Christian as well as classical—nationwide by encouraging charter schools to incorporate its model curriculum: “Hillsdale is not just a central player, but a ready-made solution for conservatives who seek to reclaim an educational system they believe was ceded decades ago to liberal interests. The college has become a leading force in promoting a conservative and overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution. It opposes progressive education reforms in general and contemporary scholarship on inequality in particular… Across the nation, conservative officials from state leaders to insurgent school board embers are clamoring to implement Hillsdale’s proudly anti-woke lesson plans, including the ‘patriotic education’ premises of its recently released 1776 Curriculum, or add to its growing network of affiliated classical charter schools.”

The NY TimesStephanie Saul explains the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative’s name: “Hillsdale’s charter school operation… began in 2010 with a grant from the Chicago-based Barney Family Foundation, endowed by Stephen M. Barney, a financial industry executive.  Saul continues: “The Hillsdale charter schools are neither owned nor managed by Hillsdale. Instead, the schools enter agreements to use the Hillsdale curriculum and the college provides training for faculty and staff, as well as other assistance—all free of charge.”

The number of Hillsdale Classical Charter Schools is growing in Ohio.  I currently count four either in operation already or getting set to open: the Cincinnati Classical Academy; the Northwest Ohio Classical Academy in Toledo; the Heart of Ohio Classical Academy in Columbus; and the Southeast Ohio Classical Academy in Athens.  Another Hillsdale Classical Academy is a private school, the Columbus Classical Academy, which, I’m sure, accepts vouchers which have been permitted for religious schools since 2002 under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris.

Four of these schools, however, are charter schools—which Ohio considers public schools.  As schools with an explicitly Christian curriculum, these charter schools, deemed public by Ohio law, raise obvious questions about church-state separation.  After the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin, a Maine school voucher decision which affirmed the constitutionality of publicly funding schools that explicitly teach religion, perhaps these Ohio Hillsdale charter schools will ultimately be tested with further litigation.

Outrageous Ohio Republican Gerrymandering and the Consequences for Our Public Schools

In State Legislatures are Torching Democracy, which appears in this week’s New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer examines what is happening in my state, Ohio, as an exemplar of what’s gone wrong in American politics.

Mayer recounts an interview with David Niven, a political science professor from the University of Cincinnati, who, “told me that, according to one study, the laws being passed by Ohio’s statehouse place it to the right of the deeply conservative legislature in South Carolina. How did this happen, given that most Ohio voters are not ultraconservatives? ‘It’s all about gerrymandering,’ Niven told me. The legislative-district maps in Ohio have been deliberately drawn so that many Republicans effectively cannot lose, all but insuring that the Party has a veto-proof supermajority. As a result, the only contests most Republican incumbents need to worry about are the primaries—and because hard-core partisans dominate the vote in those contests, the sole threat most Republican incumbents face is the possibility of being outflanked by a rival even farther to the right.”

Ted Strickland, Ohio’s Democratic governor from 2007-2011 told Mayer: “The legislature is as barbaric, primitive, and Neanderthal as any in the country. It’s really troubling.” On the other hand, Mayer quotes the extremely contented, complacent, and complicit Republican who rules Columbus today, Matt Huffman, the current president of the Ohio Senate: “We can kind of do what we want.”

Mayer reports: “The vast majority of Ohio residents clearly want legislative districts that are drawn more fairly. By 2015, the state’s gerrymandering problem had become so notorious that seventy-one percent of Ohioans voted to pass an amendment to the state constitution demanding reforms. As a result, the Ohio constitution now requires that districts be shaped so that the makeup of the General Assembly is proportional to the political makeup of the state. In 2018, an even larger bipartisan majority—seventy-five percent of Ohio voters—passed a similar resolution for the state’s congressional districts. Though these reforms were democratically enacted, the voters’ will has thus far been ignored.”  That is because this year as redistricting took place following the 2020 Census, the five Republicans on the seven member redistricting commission were led by Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, Republican House Speaker, Bob Cupp, and Republican Governor, Mike DeWine. “Currently, the Republican members have a 64-35 advantage in the House and a 25-8 advantage in the Senate. This veto-proof majority makes the Republican leaders of both chambers arguably the most powerful officeholders in the state.”

Mayer describes the story of this year’s redistricting from the point of view of Allison Russo, the minority leader in the Ohio House and one of the two Democrats on the redistricting commission: “(T)he Republican members drafted a new districting map in secret, and earlier this year they presented it to her and the other Democrat just hours before a deadline… The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the map—and then struck down four more, after the Republican majority on the redistricting commission continued submitting maps that defied the spirit of the Court’s orders… The Republicans’ antics lasted so long that they basically ran out the clock… At that point, a group allied with Republicans, Ohio Right to Life, urged a federal court to intervene, on the ground that the delay was imperiling the fair administration of upcoming elections. The decision was made by a panel of three federal judges—two of whom had been appointed by Trump. Over the strenuous objections of the third judge, the two Trump judges ruled in the group’s favor, allowing the 2022 elections to proceed with a map so rigged that Ohio’s top judicial body had rejected it as unconstitutional.”

Mayer traces what happened to Ohio back to 2010 and 2011 as Republicans developed a “REDMAP” strategy to take over state legislatures and Congress: “In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed dark money to flood American politics. Donors, many undisclosed, soon funneled thirty million dollars into the Republicans’ redistricting project, called REDMAP, and the result was an astonishing success: the Party picked up nearly seven hundred legislative seats, and won the power to redraw the maps for four times as many districts as the Democrats.”

For some background on the “RedMap” plan, we can turn to Gordon Lafer, whose 2017 book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time,” explores the Republican strategy to take over state legislatures: “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… ‘RedMap’ for short… aimed at winning control of legislatures that would be charged with redrawing congressional districts, following the 2010 census. This effort—funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, and ALEC member corporations—helped turn eleven states all red, with Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. Critically this sweep included a belt of states running across the upper Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. Newly empowered in traditionally pro-union states that are battlegrounds in national politics, corporate lobbies and their legislative allies moved quickly to enact sweeping reforms intended to advance their economic agenda and cement their political advantage.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 34-38)

In this week’s article, Mayer expands the list of powerful sponsors of far right interests in today’s Ohio.  Added to the corporate interests are hot-button advocacy groups promoting pro-gun, anti-reproductive freedom legislation along with efforts to control the school curriculum.  For example, Mayer describes the Center for Christian Virtue, a statewide organization affiliated with the religious right’s national Alliance Defending Freedom. Mayer interviews one Ohio state representative, Gary Click, who “acknowledged to me that the group had prompted him to introduce a bill opposing gender-affirming care for transgender youths, regardless of parental consent. The center, in essence, handed Click the wording for the legislation.”

Mayer’s focus is legislative gerrymandering’s effect on on hot, culture war legislation including reproductive rights, but she does discuss one proposed bill on education—to ban the discussion in the public schools of divisive topics like race, racism, and LGBTQ concerns. In fact three such bills have been proposed—HB 322, HB 327, and HB 616.  The Legislature also recently passed a bill to permit school districts to arm teachers and another banning transgender girls from school sports.

However, Mayer doesn’t mention another important complication gerrymandering has inserted into Ohio’s debate about public school teaching about racism.  After a battle on the State Board of Education about an anti-racism resolution, passed in 2020 and later rescinded under pressure from powerful Republican legislators, Governor Mike DeWine has, with impunity, imposed a gerrymandered map of State Board of Education districts. The Governor’s map is based on one of the state senate district maps previously rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court.  The governor’s new, gerrymandered State Board district map violates state law and will, in future elections, dilute the voting power of African American citizens in metropolitan Cleveland and Columbus. Despite a campaign by advocates for a fair State Board map, the Governor’s map will very likely be formally adopted tomorrow, on August 10, 2022.

Beyond the scope of Mayer’s article, however, Republican-gerrymandered Ohio legislative politics have also undermined the very foundation of the state’s system of public schools, which educate 1.8 million students.  The most recent FY 2022-2023 state budget, passed in July of 2021 included a new “Fair School Funding Plan” designed supposedly to remedy years of  inequitably distributed and inadequate school funding.  But in that same budget bill, the Ohio Legislature underfunded the new school funding plan and failed to launch a full phase-in of the program because it spent the money instead to expand school privatization (See here, here and here.) The budget bill significantly lifted the number of students who can qualify for private school tuition vouchers, expanded eligible sites for charter schools from a limited number of school districts to every district in the state, and significantly increased the dollar amount of each EdChoice voucher and overall funding for privately managed charter schools, both of which are paid for out of the public school foundation budget. And the Legislature continues to consider HB 290, the Backpack Bill, an education savings account neo-voucher program, which would make all Ohio students eligible for a publicly funded voucher—again at the expense of Ohio’s school foundation budget.

Once again, Gorden Lafer describes the deeper attack on public education itself as a centerpiece of the Republican 2010 “RedMap’ plan: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, 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 the 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 goal of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards…. 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…. (T)he 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. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

As an Ohio citizen and a strong supporter of public schools which are required by law to protect each student’s rights and meet each student’s needs, I am delighted that Jane Mayer has called attention to the reality we are experiencing.  Unfortunately for Ohio’s citizens, gerrymandering poses serious challenges.

How Did the Public Discourse Move from Democracy in Education to Individualistic, Marketplace School Choice?

Robert Asen is a University of Wisconsin rhetorician who studies political discourse. In School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 2021, Asen traces the pivot in public values and political thinking that led from philosopher John Dewey’s definition of progressive public education as the necessary institution for forming our democracy to the adoption in Asen’s home state of Wisconsin of America’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee, followed by Scott Walker’s successful promotion of the statewide expansion of marketplace school choice.

Asen presents four chapter-long “case studies” of individuals and situations that trace the transformation. The first of these profiles explores John Dewey’s thinking about democracy: “Individual and collective represent for Dewey two dimensions of the same vitality of human relationships. Individuals do not grow and mature in isolation, nor do collectives dissolve individuality.” “Individuals may practice democracy as a way of life by building relationships with others. When these relationships bring individuals together in collectives, they enable the creation of community. Community thus represents the embodied practice of organizing public relationships democratically.” “Like democracy, education unfolds through relationships. Dewey criticized traditional pedagogical practices because they fail to build relationships in the classroom.”

Asen acknowledges one absence in Dewey’s thinking about community; he imagined community perhaps as a small New England town. Dewey did not fully grasp what Asen describes as “counterpublics,”—a society  stratified by race and inequality of power: “Dewey and (W.E.B.) Du Bois lived in New York City at the same time, but they did not appear to participate in the same local community… Dewey underscored the importance of face-to-face community ‘without acknowledging any black face or community.'”

In contrast to Dewey, Milton and Rose Friedman “anticipated and influenced a wider neoliberal perspective that has treated markets not as a demarcated realm of society but as a general framework that can be applied to any activity.” “Taken together the Friedmans’ commitments to individuals, freedom, and market-inspired relationships outline a model of publicity and a policy agenda… Freedom orients this public as an ultimate value that elevates individual choice above all while obscuring structured advantages and disadvantages afforded to differently situated people in diverse and unequal societies… (T)his model treats these relationships as free of coercion and the uneven influence of power. In this way, differences between parties to a relationship do not matter in terms of shaping the dynamics of their relationship.”

The book’s third chapter becomes an exploration of the very familiar discourse of Betsy DeVos, but getting there, Asen traces 60 years of public thinking about education beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson—through the 1982 Reagan era publication of A Nation at Risk, which shifted “the focus of education discourse from education as a means of social and political equalization to education as a means to economic prosperity”—to President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit (chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) which stressed the need for “an educated workforce… in an increasingly competitive world economy” and launched the idea of national education goals—through the passage, in 2001, of No Child Left Behind, which mandated holding schools accountable according to their capacity to raise aggregate standardized test scores every year.

From my point of view, as someone who has paid attention to public education through this entire history, Asen’s judgment about the pivotal role of No Child Left Behind in setting up the discourse for the subsequent growth of school privatization may be the most significant observation in this book: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (p. 81)

Asen moves from this national history and his profile of DeVos to the operation of the discourse of privatization in his home state, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, state assembly member and Black activist Polly Williams did not follow the Friedmans’ individualist script. Williams was disillusioned with the slow pace of desegregation in Milwaukee: “In her advocacy of vouchers, Polly Williams balanced individual and community concerns. As a policy tool, vouchers permitted individual Milwaukee parents to choose a private school… Yet Williams supported vouchers to help her community.” Ultimately, however, voucher supporters in Wisconsin adopted the Friedmans’ argument: “Against democratic visions, market-based publics offer alternative alignment of means and ends, foregrounding individual choice as the means for realizing… freedom. Nevertheless, as they supported the statewide expansion of vouchers, the Republican-majority members of the Joint Finance Committee associated various ends with vouchers—improved educational outcomes for all students, cost savings, new incentives for public school accountability—that when amplified, ultimately appeared as corollary benefits of choice.”

Finally, Asen profiles widespread public school advocacy across Wisconsin today, advocacy in the spirit of John Dewey, but explicitly recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity that dominates a state where the voters in homogeneous rural communities must somehow accommodate the needs of concentrations of Black and Brown students in Milwaukee and Madison and the residents of those cities must negotiate racism in the state capitol. Asen conducted focus groups of educators and public school advocates about they ways they are finding to lift up the needs of a student population divided by race, ethnicity, and economic inequality: “The partners in this dialogue bring distinct perspectives that offer new insights through their interaction. In his writings, Dewey underscored the value of everyday action as a mode of critical praxis that can turn coordinated individual action into a powerful collective force. Our interviewees explicated the texture and diversity of everyday action through their practices of community-building, unpacking connections among community, local identity, and difference… (O)ur interviewees explicated the dynamics of race and racism (and other potential sources of unity and division) in the actual processes of community-building. They shared Dewey’s commitment to community but recognized tensions, struggles, and frustrations that accompany community engagement.”

In the end, Asen sums up precisely why the Friedman-DeVos discourse is wrong for a democratic society: “By constructing education as a discrete package that individuals may receive separately and variously, dissociation redirects education away from potentially mediating the individual and the collective in the cultivation of democratic publics and toward a role of preparing individuals to pursue their self-interests in market publics.”

Asen affirms the overall vision of John Dewey as the way to move forward: “A democratic education may support students in living their lives productively in coordination with others, pursuing individual interests while recognizing how relationships shape these interests and build life-enriching collective affiliations… A democratic education may foster recognition of the varied consequences of human action, which Dewey understood as the basis of public formation.  Individuals do not choose only for themselves; their choices carry consequences for others who must live with the potentially ameliorative and baneful effects of these choices… A democratic education may illuminate the transformative power of publics for the people who participate in them.”

Ideologues Beat Up on Public Schools As Many Forget About the Essential Role of These Public Institutions and Our Obligation to Support Them

There is evidence that the ideological attack by enemies of public education is paying off for them, but not for the 50 million students enrolled in America’s public schools.

Last week, Gallup announced: “American’s confidence in U.S. public schools remains low, with 28% saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution, similar to 32% last year. Both figures are down from 41% in 2020, reflecting a brief surge in the early months of the pandemic after registering 29% in 2019… Republicans’ confidence has… plunged, while independents’ has slipped and Democrats’ has remained near their pandemic high… Half of Republicans now have little to no faith in schools.”  Gallup’s data shows the ups and downs during COVID-19 of Republicans’, Independents’ and Democrats’ responses to public schools’ handling of the pandemic’s disruption.  Gallup adds: “Debate has also erupted at the national and local levels over school curricula touching on racism, gender theory and sexual orientation.”

In the past couple of weeks the attacks on public education have continued. We’ve been treated to the story of Larry Arnn announcing that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and proclaiming that “anyone can teach.” Arnn is the president of Michigan’s extremely conservative, Christian, Hillsdale College, which has  launched a chain of classical charter schools across several states and proposed sponsoring at least 50 new schools in Tennessee.

The NY Times also profiled Ian Underwood, a “free stater,” who moved to New Hampshire—to the village of Croydon—as an anti-tax “liberty activist.” Posing this question—“Why is that guy paying for that guy’s kids to be educated?”—Underwood spoke at a town meeting and introduced a motion to cut the town’s public school budget in half—to a total of $800,000 per year.  According to the NY Times report, “Underwood asserted that sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them ‘crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity.'” Fortunately in Croydon, other citizens rose up against Ian Underwood and in favor of the public schools that serve the town’s children.

One detail in Gallup’s new report caught my eye: “While Republicans express low confidence in U.S. public schools, education is not on their minds.  When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today—only 1% of Republicans in June named education in answer to this open-ended question. Thus, it remains to be seen if concerns about education spur Republicans to the polls in November—or if other issues, from inflation to abortion to guns, are more prominent in influencing whether and how people vote.”

The late Mike Rose, author and professor of education, worried that people are not paying enough attention to what teachers do and what their public schools accomplish: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.” (Why School? p. 203)

In a wonderful essay published posthumously, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” Rose explores dimensions of public schooling that ideologues ignore and many of us forget to consider: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures. Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.” “Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal. (Mike Rose, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” in David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, editors, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Teachers College Press, 2022)

Today’s ideologues and too many of the rest of us also happily discount important questions of political philosophy which have traditionally shaped Americans’ assumptions about public education. Worried about these philosophical questions, The New Republic‘s editor, Michael Tomasky reproaches New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood for forgetting about the principle of public responsibility: “In the U.S., of course, public education is mostly funded by property taxes and financed by local governments.  There are problems with this, as there are with any system invented by imperfect human beings, the main one being that rich districts have a lot more money and thus much better schools; but even still, the good part is that we as a society accept the idea that we all have to contribute. It does not matter whether you have children in the schools…. This is a core principle of civilized society. We all contribute to certain activities that have clear universal social benefit… The question of political philosophy is this: What is the common good—what must it include, and what is each citizen’s responsibility toward securing it? We decided in the U.S. a little more than a century ago that universal public education, free to every child and paid for by all of us, was central to any definition of a common good.”

Today many of us operate as consumers and forget about the responsibilities expected of citizens. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber worries: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

The strategies of the anti-government folks and other school privatizers may differ, but they are all a threat to the principle and operation of public schooling. Croydon, New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood wants to cut taxes and government, while most privatizers advocate for privately operated schools at public expense. What the promoters of education savings account vouchers advocate, for example, is giving every child who opts out of public school a publicly funded credit card voucher to pay for private school or home schooling or whatever kind of education the parents choose. The problem is that the money for the education savings account credit cards inevitably comes out of the state’s public school budget and reduces programming in the public schools likely to remain the primary education provider serving the majority of students and adolescents.

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

In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, challenges us to consider and protect the fragile principle of public responsibility: “In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)

Ohio Public Education Partners & Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education Join Heights Coalition in Submitting Voucher Case Amicus Brief

On July 1, 2022, the Heights Coalition for Public Education—in collaboration with co-amici, Ohio Public Education Partners and the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education—filed an amicus brief in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to support plaintiffs in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit. The amicus brief asks the court not to dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit, as requested by state defendants.

The Vouchers Hurt Ohio litigation at issue—Columbus City School District et al. v. State of Ohio et al challenges the constitutionality of state funded EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers.  State legislation has consistently expanded the scope, scale and cost of vouchers since 1995, when Ohio initiated a pilot program for children enrolled in the Cleveland Public Schools. EdChoice vouchers are now available in 87 school districts, and EdChoice Expansion vouchers are available in all 610 Ohio school districts.

Although the Ohio Legislature approved a state budget for the FY 2022-2023 biennium that included a school funding formula based on the actual cost of educating Ohio’s children and adolescents in the state’s public schools, the Legislature failed fully to invest in the plan. Lawmakers chose instead to increase the state’s investment in private education, leaving communities without relief from funding lost to vouchers.

In Columbus City School District et al. v. State of Ohio et al, more than 100 Ohio school districts and the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed suit on January 4, 2022, challenging the Constitutionality of Ohio’s two largest voucher programs. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District is a lead plaintiff in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit.

The Heights Coalition’s interest in the litigation comes from the harm the Cleveland Heights and University Heights communities have experienced due to unfettered growth of vouchers. EdChoice vouchers have resulted both in lost education opportunities for the public school district’s students and an increase in the tax burden for residents of that school district.

In the brief filed on July 1, co-amici  ask the court not to dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit which challenges the following injustices in today’s Ohio school funding:

  • The rapid and uncontrolled growth of EdChoice vouchers has created a situation which violates the Ohio Constitution’s mandate for adequate school funding, equitably distributed, and also violates the 25-year-old Ohio Supreme Court decision in DeRolph v. Ohio which declared overreliance on local property taxes unconstitutional.
  • EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers constitute preferential treatment of private schools over public schools because in a number of school districts the state awards more state funds per student to private school voucher students than to the public school students in those districts.
  • When the state funded the FY 2022-2023 state budget, the state increased its investment in private school tuition vouchers at the expense of fully funding the so-called Fair School Funding Plan the legislature launched in that same state budget.
  • EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers have increased racial segregation.  In the school districts where the greatest number of vouchers are granted for private schools, many of the publicly enrolled students are African American, but most of the students using the vouchers are white.

The Heights Coalition, the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education, and Ohio Public Education Partners are all grassroots community groups made up of parents, teachers, and citizens who believe that public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents across the United States are served. Public schools are the optimal institution for balancing the needs of each particular student and family with the community’s obligation to create a system that secures the rights of all students.

Good News: U.S. Dept. of Ed. Strengthens Needed Regulation of Federal Charter Schools Program

Quietly on Friday afternoon before the July 4th holiday weekend, the U.S. Department of Education announced it has finalized rules to strengthen oversight of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). The new rules are just the sort of sensible regulation that ought to have been part of the program when it was established back in 1994.

For Education Week, Libby Stanford reports: “Incoming charter schools will have to gather community input and prove they aren’t managed by a for-profit company to receive federal funding under the Biden administration’s finalized Charter Schools Program rules published Friday. The U.S. Department of Education’s final notice on the new regulations is the latest development in the controversy surrounding charter school rules… The administration’s goal in issuing the new rules is to prevent private companies from using federal dollars to open charter schools and to curb premature closures.  Fifteen percent of the charter schools that receive funding from the program either never open or close before the three-year grant period is over, department officials told Education Week.”

In a Fact Sheet about its new rules, the Department declares that it will no longer award our federal tax dollars to supposedly nonprofit charter schools which are operated under sweeps contracts by huge for-profit charter management organizations (CMOs): “Given the significant risks to public funds that fall under the purview of for-profit charter school operators, the Department’s rulemaking is in alignment with federal statute that expressly prohibits for-profit organizations from applying for grants or subgrants under CSP.”

The Department also now requires that charter school authorizers applying for grants to start up new schools must explore and document the impact of the new school on the traditional public schools and the community. The Fact Sheet explains: “Supporting high-quality charter school options in the interest of students and families requires CSP applicants to demonstrate the need for the school and the benefits to the community—for example, increasing the number of high-quality seats available to students. It also means that school plans, including enrollment projections, inclusive practices and academic goals, are well-conceived and evidence-based.” The Department adds that new charter schools must “not be used to increase racial or socio-economic segregation and isolation.”

The Network for Public Education reports some of the details of the new regulations. Charter schools operated by for-profit CMOs need not apply. White flight charter schools will not qualify for Charter Schools Program (CSP) grants.  The new rules bar the use of CSP implementation funds until the school has not only a charter but has also acquired a building in which it will operate. Applicants for CSP grants must hold or participate in a public hearing on the proposed charter school’s expected impact. The new rules require added transparency: within 120 days, all schools with CSP funds, CMOs and states with charter school state grants must post on a website detailed information about all grantees, including peer reviews and management contracts.

Background

In March, the U.S. Department  of Education posted the proposed rules in the Federal Register and requested public comments. Supporters of the new rules and opponents of charter school regulation submitted over 5,000 unique comments including many readers of this blog who submitted comments supporting the proposed regulations. The charter school lobby, led by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, also mounted an enormous effort including a D.C. rally and TV ads to oppose stronger oversight of this federal grant program.

Some History and Context

Those of us who follow the news about charter schools know there is a need for better oversight of this education sector. The Network for Public Education tracks the myriad financial and educational charter school scandals reported in the local news across the states. Just in the month of June three of the most sensational and most expensive charter school scandals once again popped up:

  • Oklahoma’s Epic Charter School Scandal — On June 23, The Oklahoman reported: “The co-founders of Epic Charter Schools have been arrested on charges of financial crimes… Ben Harris, David Chaney and the chief financial officer for their company, Josh Brock were…. booked into the Oklahoma County jail on a $250,000 bond. Harris, Chaney and Brock were arrested on charges of embezzlement of state funds, racketeering, obtaining money by false pretense, conspiracy to commit a felony, violations of the state computer crimes act, submitting false documents to the state and unlawful proceeds… The charges stem from a nine-year investigation into the defendants’ management of Epic Charter Schools, a public virtual charter school system. On top of establishing Epic, Harris… and Chaney… founded a private company that operated the school system and earned 10% of its yearly education funding.  Epic severed all ties with the co-founders, Brock and their business in May 2021.”
  • California’s A3 Charter School Scandal — In early June, the San Diego Union Tribune reported California’s collection of additional restitution as part of the punishment for perpetrators of an enormous online charter school fraud: “An additional $18.8 million has been paid to San Diego County as restitution for the statewide A3 charter school scam in which the state was defrauded of hundreds of millions of school dollars…. Sean McManus of Australia, along with Jason Schrock of Long Beach, led a statewide charter school scheme from 2016 to 2019 in which they used a network of mostly online charter schools to defraud the state of approximately $400 million and used $50 million of that amount for personal use. They did so by falsely enrolling students and manipulating enrollment and attendance reporting across their schools to get more money per student than schools are supposed to, prosecutors said. In total, about $240 million of the $400 million has been recovered.”
  • Ohio’s ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) Scandal — The Columbus Dispatch’s Laura Bischoff reported on Tuesday of last week that the state of Ohio is still owed $117 million by the operators of ECOT, which was shut down over four years ago for charging the state for students who were never enrolled: “The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow—an online charter school that abruptly closed in January 2018—owes the state more than $117 million, a newly released state audit found.  Ohio Auditor Keith Faber on Tuesday said the school owes $106.6 million to the state Department of Education and another $10.6 million to the Attorney General’s office. Faber’s auditors found that ECOT wasn’t entitled to some of the state money it received in 2016 and 2017 and none of the cash it received in 2018.  William Lager founded ECOT in 2000 and built it into the largest online charter school in Ohio. Lager also operated Altair Learning Management Inc. and IQ Innovations LLC, which contracted with ECOT to provide support services.”  The two companies were the source of enormous profits collected by Bill Lager.

In June, we also had an opportunity to read an updated assessment of the years-long impact of the 2005 experiment which radically expanded charter schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans educator, Michael Deshotels describes what happened during 2005 and 2006 and the condition of education in New Orleans today:

“In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina physically destroyed much of the Orleans public school system, the Louisiana legislature passed a law allowing the State Department of Education to take over approximately three-fourths of New Orleans public schools. According to the new state law, school takeover (only in New Orleans) became automatic for any school producing less than the state average score on state tests… The (Louisiana) Department of Education was authorized to turn such schools over to charter school management organizations in an agreement that removed many state requirements and standards in exchange for greatly improved academic results… The majority of charter management organizations came into the Orleans system starting with the 2006-07 school year.  State officials had fired almost 7,000 experienced teachers and staff as a way of cleaning house and allowing the new managers a fresh start, unhampered by previous teacher contracts.  Most charter groups began by hiring new—mostly younger teachers…. Most new teachers were provided by Teach for America. Also, many of the charter school managers had no education credentials.”

Deshotels updates the story, based on a new (2022) report from the Louisiana Pelican Policy Institute. “The recent study shows that taken as a whole, the New Orleans all charter system is still ranking in the bottom quartile of all public-school systems in the state. This is in a state that performs near the bottom of all states on national testing and college preparedness… In the key subjects of math and reading, Orleans performs at the 24th percentile compared to all other state school systems.  This is approximately the same as the Orleans school system performed before Katrina! … Did the increased funding allow the reformed Orleans school system to hire a better quality of teachers? The state auditor recently found that more than half of Orleans teachers are not certified as teachers. In addition, most of the teachers now employed in Orleans are Caucasian, while 90% of the students are African American.”

The New Federal Rules Won’t Entirely Clean Up Charter School Abuses.

After examining the new rules, the Network for Public Education’s Carol Burris concludes: “These new regulations are an essential first step in making sure that fewer tax dollars go to schools that never open, schools that quickly close, and for-profit operators. Unscrupulous individuals who used the program for their enrichment will find it more difficult to do so. State Entities that have pushed money out the door will now be forced to provide more oversight and supervision. And so they should. State Entities get 10 percent of every grant, representing millions of federal dollars, to use for such supervision.”

The new federal  regulations cannot themselves prevent many of the fraudulent schemes like the ones described in Oklahoma, California and Ohio.  Neither will the new regulations prevent state legislators from introducing wild experiments exemplified by the 2005 New Orleans state takeover and transformation to charter schools. Charter schools are established by law in 45 of the states and the District of Columbia, and they are regulated largely by state law. If the new regulations are well enforced, they will ensure that unscrupulous charter school operators can no longer qualify for federal grants under the Charter Schools Program.

The federal Charter Schools Program, begun in 1994, was envisioned by promoters who sold charter schools as an innovative alternative to traditional public schools operating in a bureaucratic straight jacket of regulations. Ironically the experiment has instead proven the urgent need for careful government oversight. The federal Charter Schools Program rules adopted last Friday will better protect our federal tax dollars and set an example of the kind of regulations state legislators should themselves begin to undertake. Charter school operators like those described in the examples here have flagrantly demonstrated the urgent need for better stewardship of tax dollars flowing to charter schools.