One State Sets Out to Rethink Public Oversight of Charter Schools

I am encouraged by the findings, released last Friday, of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Charter School Policy Task Force.

Newsome set up the group to consider recommendations to the Legislature for reining in an out of control charter school sector. He proposed the task force earlier this spring after massive teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland brought attention to the amount of money flowing out of public school budgets into the charter schools whose location and authorization has been pretty much beyond the control of the public school districts where charter school have been able to locate.

EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reminds us that the mere size of California’s charter sector—1,300 charter schools, more than any other state—makes oversight and regulation a poignant issue. One reason the issue of charter school oversight has drawn attention this year is that Governor Gavin Newsom has shown himself willing to consider the need for increased regulation. Former Governor Jerry Brown, himself a founder of charter schools in Oakland, was known to veto charter school oversight laws on the occasion they did reach his desk. Gov. Newsom assigned State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond—elected last November on a pro-public schools platform—to facilitate the Task Force.

The issue of the cost for public school districts of a rapidly expanding charter school sector in California was further elevated a year ago by a report published by In the Public Interest. The report’s author, Oregon economist Gordon Lafer documented very sizeable losses of public dollars to charter schools in three school districts during the 2016-2017 school year: Oakland Unified School District lost $57.3 million; San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million; and Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District lost $19.3 million.

The Task Force released its findings last Friday, June 7. Before one even considers the consensus recommendations and majority recommendations of the Charter School Policy Task Force, however, one must recognize that it is surprising the Task Force report contains any consensus recommendations at all. The Task Force was not made up of academic researchers; neither was it a collection of experts on good government and public finance. It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seems to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.

Several members of the Task Force represent public schools, educators’ professional organizations, and organized labor: the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association; the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate); the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99; the California School Employees Association; the Association of California School Administrators; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 57; the El Dorado County Office of Education, and the San Diego Unified School District.  Four members represent charter school chains or charter school advocacy organizations: the California Charter Schools Association; Green Dot Public Schools California; Aspire Public Schools; and Fortune School of Education.

The Task Force lists a number of consultants from whom its members received input. On the one side, they heard from: The Alameda County Office of Education; the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Department of Education Fiscal Services Division; the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team; the Legislative Analyst’s Office;  and the Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego Unified School districts—along with economist Gordon Lafer.

On the other side, the Task Force members considered the views of the California Charter Authorization Professionals; the California Charter Schools Association; the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division; the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, and Green Dot Charter Schools—along with Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and designer of the theory of Portfolio School Reform—which envisions running a school district like a business portfolio with investments in traditional public and charter schools alike.

Across the divided points of view of the group’s participants and advisers, the Task Force’s members were able to reach consensus on four needed reforms. Although these consensus recommendations don’t seem particularly earth shaking, they do highlight that in California, according to the way things operate right now, a local school district doesn’t have much control at all about who opens a charter school within the boundaries of the district, what kind of school opens, and how much money students carry away from the public schools on the day they exit.

Here are the consensus recommendations: (1) The length of time must be extended from 60 to 90 days for an authorizer to consider a charter schools petition for authorization.  (2) A new statewide entity must be created to develop standards for the authorization and oversight of charter schools.  And the new statewide entity must train authorizers to more carefully investigate the schools they are sponsoring and to increase oversight of schools once they are authorized.  (3) The state must continue to provide a student’s state funding to the public school district for one year after a student transfers to a charter school. (4) Public school boards must be given greater capacity to consider the impact on the public schools when the school board is asked to make a decision to approve or deny a petition for a new charter school.  Further,  the California Department of Education cannot any longer be the sole oversight body for the 39 charter schools currently authorized by the State Board of Education, because the schools are geographically so far apart that the three current staff people have been unable to provide adequate oversight.

Additionally, the California Charter School Task Force reports seven other “proposals discussed” by members of the Task Force and “supported by the majority.”  EdSource‘s John Fensterwald clarifies what this “majority” designation likely really means: “The report includes seven additional recommendations, supported by an unnamed majority of the task force—presumably without some or all of the four charter school-affiliated members—that urge more severe restrictions on charter school growth.”  Here are the seven proposals discussed and supported by the majority:

  1. “There has been growing concern that virtual charter schools are operated without appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students.”  “Enact a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”
  2. “Remove the California State Board of Education from hearing appeals of charter petition denials.”  Currently in California, charter schools turned down by the school board of the district where they are to be located or the County Board of Education can appeal to the State Board of Education to override their rejection at the local level.
  3. “Limit the authorization of new charter schools to local districts with an appeals process that takes place at the County Board of Education only when there was an error by the district governing board.” This provision would increase the local control of the elected board of education in the school district where charters seek to open.
  4. “Prohibit districts from authorizing charter schools located outside district boundaries.”  “Current law allows a charter school to open one site outside of the authorizing district only if the charter school has attempted to locate within the authorizer’s boundaries, but an appropriate site was unavailable.” The Task Force explains that the rule here has not been enforced and that, “such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
  5. “Allow authorizers to consider fiscal impact as part of the authorization process.”  Here the Task Force provides considerable explanation: “Presentations from Oakland,… Los Angeles,… and San Diego Unified School District(s) to the Charter Task Force demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries. In addition to the oft-cited loss of ADA funding, other costs may include, but are not limited to: inability to reduce expenses proportionally without direct harm to student programs and services (utilities, staff, daily maintenance, etc.); obligations to keep schools open and facilities available; increased liability and litigation; disproportionality of special education costs, competition for state, local, and other funds; thorough oversight; and marketing in a newly competitive environment.  Allowing authorizers to consider fiscal impacts of a charter petition enables them to evaluate the impact on the entirety of their local educational system.”
  6. “Establish clear guidelines for use by authorizers and by charter applicants for new charter petitions.”  The Task Force’s report explains: “Current law requires charter petitions to include a description of 16 elements. Beyond these elements, there are no standards that provide guidance on the level of detail an applicant should include. As such, applicants submit charter petitions of varying quality… Clear guidelines, such as rubrics or handbooks, for applicants to follow would standardize the quality of new charter schools.”
  7. “Update Education Code requirements to reflect current state accountability.”

Members of California’s state legislature have been considering a package of bills to increase regulation of the charter school sector. For Capital Public Radio, Ricardo Cano reports that, after the winter’s teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, “In the Democratic-controlled Legislature, proposals to regulate charter schools quickly followed. But many lawmakers made it clear in recent weeks that they wanted the report to factor into their decisions, though they are not bound to take up any of its recommendations. Though a bill to regulate so-called ‘far-flung’ charters has moved easily through the process, another to give districts more authority over charter authorizations and remove appeals at the state and county level, barely made it out of the Assembly, as some lawmakers expressed hesitance in moving forward without the recommendations from the Charter Task Force.  And two others, to cap the number of charters and enact a temporary moratorium on new ones, stalled before coming to a floor vote.”

The two bills still being considered are addressed in the proposals which a majority of the Task Force approved. Cano explains: “For instance, the majority supported prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, a key aim of the ‘far-flung’ charter’ bill, Assembly Bill 1507.” (majority proposal #4)  Cano adds: “A majority of the Task Force also seemed to support some aspects of Assembly Bill 1505, the sweeping proposal that would tighten appeals for denied charters, including prohibiting appeals to the State Board of Education. A majority also supported limiting the authorization of new charter schools to local school districts and limiting appeals to the county education boards.” (majority proposals #2 and #3)

We must further hope that the Task Force’s majority proposal #5—on the damaging fiscal impact of charter school growth on the budgets of the public school districts where charters are located—continues seriously to be considered by the Legislature, by Tony Thurmond, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The reality, considered and agreed on by the majority of the Task Force, that charter schools are operating as fiscal parasites on their host school districts is the very heart of the problem in California and across the states.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Ohio Senate Releases Detailed State School District Takeover Plan

Updated June 13, 2019

You will remember that on May 1, 2019, the Ohio House passed HB 154 to repeal Ohio state school takeovers, which have been catastrophic failures in Lorain and Youngstown under HB 70—the law that set up the state seizure of so-called failing school districts. HB70 was fast tracked through the Legislature in 2015 without hearings. Youngstown and Lorain have been operating under state appointed CEOs for four years now; East Cleveland has been undergoing state takeover this year.

Not only did the Ohio House pass HB 154 six weeks ago to undo HB 70, but its members did so in spectacular fashion, by a margin of 83/12.  The House was so intent on ridding the state of top-down state takeovers that its members also included the repeal of HB 70 in the House version of the state budget—HB 166.

Yesterday afternoon, the Ohio Senate released an amended, substitute HB166—the Senate’s proposal for the state budget.  Also released was a detailed 54 page School Transformation Proposal amendment to replace the House’s simple action to undo HB 70.  (The Senate’s School Transformation Proposal begins on p. 14 in the linked amendment.)

The three districts Ohio has already seized with HB 70—and 10 others slated to be taken over in the next two years—are all school districts that serve Ohio’s very poorest children. Last evening, as I plodded through the statutory language in the amendment being considered by the Ohio Senate, I found myself wondering if the people envisioning this laborious, top-down, state takeover plan—a plan that pretends not to be a state takeover—have spent time trying to transform a complex institution like a school in the kind of community where many children arrive in Kindergarten far behind their peers in more affluent communities.  And I wondered why the Senate’s plan relies on so many of the failed “turnaround” strategies of No Child Left Behind—the federal law that imposed imposed a rigid plan for raising test scores and that left an increasing number of American schools with “failing” ratings every year until the law was scrapped when it was itself deemed a failure. No Child Left Behind was a test-and-punish law; the Ohio Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is also very much a test-and-punish law—at a time when extensive academic research demonstrates that standardized tests are a flawed yardstick for measuring the quality of a school.

We can only hope the Ohio House will determinedly oppose the Senate’s plan and stop it in the Senate-House Conference Committee.

Here is how the Senate’s proposed state takeover would work.

  • The proposed amendment establishes a statewide School Transformation Board made up of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; the Chancellor of Higher Education; and three individuals, appointed by the Governor and with experience and expertise in education policy or school improvement. The School Transformation Board would hire an executive director and would be required to approve school improvement plans developed in the school districts deemed in need of transformation.
  • The Ohio Department of Education would create and maintain a list of “approved school improvement organizations” which may be not-for-profit, or for-profit, and may include an educational service center. The approved school improvement organizations would serve as consultants to the school districts deemed “failing.”
  •  A school district which has earned an “F” rating for three years or (under HB 70) been under an Academic Distress Commission, would be required to choose one of the approved school improvement organizations, which would, in the first year the school is under “transformation,” conduct what the plan calls a “root cause review of the district.” The consulting organization would review the district’s leadership, governance, and communication; curriculum and instruction; assessments and effective use of student data; human resources and professional development; student supports; fiscal management, district board policies; collective bargaining agreements currently in force; and “any other issues preventing full or high-quality.” In other words, the consulting “school improvement organization” would diagnose why this school district has received three years of “F” ratings.
  • The state’s School Transformation Board would then establish—in each district being transformed—a local School District Improvement Commission including three members appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the teachers union, who would be a non-voting member; a representative of the business community appointed by the municipality’s mayor; the president of the elected board of education—all of whom must reside in the county where the school district is located.  The School Improvement Commission would be required to appoint a School Improvement Director.
  • After the consulting school improvement organization has conducted the root cause analysis, the local School Improvement Commission would convene a committee of community stakeholders district-wide and also at each of the district’s schools to create a district-wide improvement plan and a school-improvement plan for each school. These school improvement plans would be submitted to the statewide School Transformation Board for approval.
  • The school district’s School Improvement Director would have enormous powers under the Senate’s Transformation Proposal: to replace school administrators; to assign employees to schools and approve transfers; to hire new employees; to define employee job descriptions; to establish employee compensation; to allocate teacher class loads; to conduct employee evaluations; to reduce staff; to set the school calendar; to create the budget; to contract services for the district; to modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; to establish grade configurations of the schools; to determine the curriculum; to select instructional materials and assessments; to set class size; and to provide staff professional development.  The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.
  • Additionally—and here is where this plan copies No Child Left Behind—the Senate’s Transformation Proposal would empower the local School Improvement Director to reconstitute the school through the following methods: “change the mission of the school or the focus of its curriculum; replace the school’s principal and/or administrative staff; replace a majority of the school’s staff, including teaching and non-teaching employees; contract with a nonprofit or for-profit entity to manage the operations of the school… reopen the school as a community (Ohio’s term for charter) school… (or) permanently close the school.” The Senate’s proposal specifies: “If the director plans to reconstitute a school… the commission shall review the plan for that school and either approve or reject it by the thirtieth day of June of the school year.”
  • Additionally, “the director may limit, suspend, or alter any provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into, modified, renewed, or extended on or after October 15, 2015.”
  • Beginning on July 1, 2020, school districts would enter the process earlier—after only one year of an “F” rating: “Beginning July 1, 2020, this section shall apply to each city, local, and exempted village school district that receives an overall grade of “F”… for the previous school year.  Each district that receives such a grade shall be designated with ‘in need of improvement’ status and undergo a root cause review….  After receiving the root cause review, each school district to which this section applies shall create an improvement plan for the district, if recommended by the review, and for each of the district’s schools that received an overall grade of “F” or “D.”
  • There is also a long section on eligibility for EdChoice Vouchers, which I am not covering in this post.

This is the briefest summary of the 54 page, Ohio Senate School Transformation Proposal budget amendment released yesterday.  There will be more details and a deeper exploration of the plan in upcoming days, especially if Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner follows up as she has promised, with hearings at which the public will have the opportunity to provide testimony.

The Pennsylvania education writer, Peter Greene recently commented on such takeover plans as Ohio HB 70—Ohio’s current takeover of the school districts in Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland in which the districts are operated by a czar chosen by a state-appointed Academic Distress Commission—and the kind of plan proposed in detail yesterday by the Ohio Senate in its proposed budget: “Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them… then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don’t know how to raise test scores, or they just don’t care.  Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty—none of that is on the table.  The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced… then everything will run so much better.”

What is clear from this very brief summary of the Senate’s School Transformation Proposal is that, although the Senate has proposed a state school district takeover plan with more local control over the members of the local School Improvement Commission, and while district and individual school improvement plans would have the input of community stakeholders, this is still a plan that puts all the power in a district School Improvement Director—a czar who can fire the principals and the teachers, charterize the schools, privatize the schools, abrogate collective bargaining agreements, and even shut down schools.  And the district’s School Improvement Director’s power grows in later years if the district fails to show progress.  In the fourth year of no progress, “A new board of education shall be appointed… However, the Director shall retain complete operational, managerial, and instructional control of the district.”

There is even some scary language as we move along through the process of reconstitution: “If at any time there are no longer any schools operated by the district due to reconstitution or other closure of the district’s schools… the school improvement commission shall cease to exist and the school improvement director shall cease to exercise any powers with respect to the district.”  While nobody would probably miss the School Improvement Commission or the School Improvement Director, the community’s children and their parents would likely regret the loss of their public schools.

School Funding On My Mind

The failure of the school tax on the ballot last Tuesday in Los Angeles is the latest troubling story, but school funding has been an undercurrent in the news across the country in recent weeks.

Even in Massachusetts, where public education is relatively well funded, members of the New England Patriots published an op-ed in the Boston Globe to compare and contrast the funding in the schools where they visit. They have been paying attention to the school libraries: “We’ve read stories to elementary school students, sitting on carpeted floors in large libraries filled wall-to-wall with books and colorful seating areas. Yet we’ve also visited schools where we see a very different picture. Two weeks ago, we invited members of the Legislature to join us on a tour of Tracy Elementary School in Lynn. It was clear that Tracy’s principal, staff, and teachers are the school’s heart and soul, doing their best to give these children the best educational experience possible—but they also clearly lack the basic resources necessary to help their students succeed. Unlike at other schools we’ve visited, we didn’t see a dedicated library in Tracy Elementary. We didn’t meet a librarian. There is none… (W)e were shocked when we saw the reading rooms where English learners, along with students with learning disabilities, go to get time with a reading teacher or specialist. The rooms were 50 square feet and had no chairs, forcing up to 10 students at a time to squeeze on the floor to get the support they need… The state’s inequitable funding of education has left districts containing high concentrations of low-income students with smaller budgets than other, more affluent districts, even as these districts must meet a greater level of need from their students.”

Florida’s legislature has recently passed a troubling change to the state’s school finance.  Florida’s new law redirects a portion of locally passed school taxes to privately operated charter schools. In a nuanced and important analysis of the new law’s impact, Jeff Bryant quotes Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, who explains that voters in Palm Beach County recently approved by a 72 percent margin, “$200 million in funding for their schools… a measure that specified increases could be used for teacher raises in traditional public schools and not for funding charter schools.”  However: “A recent law passed by the majority Republican Florida state legislature and signed by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will force local school districts to share portions of their locally appropriated tax money with charter schools, even if those funds are raised for the express purpose of increasing teacher salaries in district operated public schools.”

In Ohio, a new bipartisan school funding plan, introduced with fanfare in March—with the intention it would be included in the Ohio House biennial budget proposal—has sunk into a morass of legislative negotiation and disappeared from the news entirely. The proposed plan was intended to address the following problem: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide. Ohio’s public schools have been victimized by a decade of tax cuts, further reducing the state’s education budget following the 2008 recession.

But this week’s most significant story is the failure of the Los Angeles parcel tax in a special election last Tuesday. District officials put the tax on the ballot after the teachers struck last January to expose the decrepit conditions in their schools, a widespread lack of support staff, huge and unworkable class size, and paltry salaries for teachers and other education professionals.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez captures the message voters seemed to send in Tuesday’s election: “On this, the last week of school before summer break in the Los Angeles Unified School District, voters have sent a loud and clear message to roughly 600,000 students:  Your schools may be crumbling, your libraries may be closed, your class sizes may be unmanageably large, about 90% of you live in poverty, and thousands of you are homeless, but who cares? The Measure EE parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot needed two-thirds approval and didn’t even get 50%. It would have cost the average homeowner about 75 cents a day.  As supporters pointed out, California is in the bottom tier of funding per pupil nationally, and New York City schools spend about $8,000 more per student than L.A. Unified spends. The response from Los Angeles was a shrug.  Actually, it looks like roughly 90% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.”

The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter, Howard Blume describes the usual anti-tax rhetoric produced by the opponents of the school levy whenever such a local tax appears on the ballot.  In Los Angeles the opposition was led by the Chamber of Commerce.  Blume quotes Richard Fisk, a leader from the anti-tax committee: “‘I think the school district is mismanaging how they spend their money and mismanaging how they create a quality education for all their kids,’ said Richard Fisk of Granada Hills, chairman of government affairs for United Chambers of Commerce, based in the San Fernando Valley. Before asking for more money, ‘the district needs to get its house in order both fiscally and academically,’ he said.”

It’s easy to assume that with its thriving economy California ought to be able adequately to fund its public schools. But local school spending remains limited by Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax freeze law; state funding has not made up the difference.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranks the states by their combined state and local funding per-pupil.  California is 18th from the bottom.

After Tuesday’s parcel tax failure in Los Angeles, columnist Steve Lopez interviewed Glenn Sacks, a James Monroe High School social studies teacher who identifies racism and inequality as issues underneath the election results: ” ‘I think as LAUSD has become so heavily minority, so heavily poor… the public feels it doesn’t have a stake in public education anymore, and they’re willing to let conditions deteriorate,’ said Sacks, whose class sizes are as high as 41 students. ‘People say don’t complain about class sizes, deport the illegals, you’re lousy teachers turning out a lousy product, and a lot of this is just nonsense. The kids I teach, I love them, and they learn, and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. But they start out so far behind the white middle-class kids they’re being compared to, inevitably they’re going to look like they’re not succeeding and we’re not succeeding…. I’m amazed that people can’t see through that.”

Lopez continues, commenting on Sacks’ explanation of last Tuesday’s election returns: “Sacks is framing the dark narrative here, the one that says a great deal about race and class in Los Angeles, and about practical and psychic distance between haves and have-nots. Most voters don’t send their kids to L.A. Unified Schools, don’t venture into neighborhoods where the challenge for educators is greatest, and never see firsthand the promise and possibility in the faces of those 600,000 children who could use a little more help. It’s easier to shrug, to vote no, to skip the election altogether and say, sorry, kids, have a nice summer.”

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Charter Schools at a Turning Point: How to Rein In an Out of Control Education Sector

If you read one article about education this week, you should read Jack Schneider’s column from last week’s Washington Post.  If you have already read it, I encourage you to read it again.  Schneider is an education historian at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  In last week’s column, Schneider shows how charter schools have failed to fulfill the promises of their promoters.

Schneider’s analysis is fair and balanced as he notes that charters have a mixed record.  While some are excellent schools that serve children well, “On the whole… charters have failed to live up to their promises.”

Schneider adds that the public is growing more aware of the problems charter school growth has caused for the public school districts where the charters have been located: “The charter school movement is in trouble.  In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’  Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the… runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion.  In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives—the Community and Citywide Education Councils—issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists. After a six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers forced the city’s Board of Education to seek a state moratorium on new L.A. charters, an outcome that reverberated across California and then repeated itself in Oakland.”

“But,” writes Schneider, “much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather then results.”  What were the promises? “The first big promise of the charter movement was, in the words of Barack Obama, that these schools would be ‘incubators of innovation’… The second promise, as George W. Bush put it, was that charters would give ‘families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better.’ In a competitive marketplace, families would no longer be trapped inside the ‘public school monopoly.’… The third promise was that charters would foster competition among schools in a manner that would lead to systemwide improvement.”

But, Schneider shows that charter schools weren’t really innovative: “Consider, for instance, the lack of innovation in the charter sector.  According to a recent report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, for instance, charter schools tend toward a particular set of practices: longer schooldays, comprehensive behavioral policies (governing how students dress, when they can speak and where they can move, enforced by a range of punishments) and a focus on academic achievement.”

And, “Charters have also failed to live up to the hype of freeing families from ‘bad schools.’ In large part, that is because the introduction of charters simply creates an opportunity for choice; it does not ensure the quality of schools.”

Neither has competition driven widespread school improvement in K-12 education across the United States: “Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students.”

For all these reasons, Schneider concludes, “the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel.”

One of the places where support for charters has been unraveling is California, where former Governor Jerry Brown—himself the founder of charter schools in Oakland, vetoed legislation to increase oversight of the charter sector. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, has shown himself more willing to consider expanding regulation of what continues to prove itself an education sector out of control.

Just this week, for example, the San Diego Union Tribune has been reporting in-depth on the indictment of eleven people who operated an online charter school scam in San Diego. This was neither a small nor an inconsequential scandal: “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students… San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said that leaders of the charter schools enrolled thousands of students into their schools, often without their knowledge, and collected millions of dollars in state funds.  Many students were already enrolled in private schools or in youth athletic groups, and the charter school leaders bought their information to claim them as their students….”  The operators of the charter schools claimed to be providing services for the schools through private corporations they owned, “But the two men never provided any services to the charter schools….”

California allows school districts to sponsor charter schools, and it has been reported in the past that tiny elementary school districts have sponsored online or storefront charter schools in strip malls in locations outside their own school districts in order to reap sponsorship and oversight fees from the state to pad their own school district budgets. The Dehesa Elementary School District in San Diego County is one such district. The charter school operators who were indicted, “looked for low-enrollment school districts like Dehesa to authorize their charter schools… because small school districts would likely want to benefit from charter school oversight fees that charters pay to their authorizing districts.” “One of the people indicted last week is Dehesa School District Superintendent Nancy Hauer, “who was indicted for allegedly over-charging charter schools by more than $2 million in oversight fees—which is more than the district’s own payroll budget.”

Researchers in California have also begun calculating the loss from public school district budgets to charter schools.  A year ago, In the Public Interest, a public policy organization in California, published a study by political economist Gordon Lafer which explored the fiscal implications of the unregulated expansion of charter schools for three California school districts—the Oakland Unified School District, the San Diego Unified School District, and the Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District.  When students leave a California public school district, writes Lafer, “all the funding for that student leaves with them while all the costs do not.”

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

In his report last year, Lafer calculated that, “Measured as a per-pupil cost, we estimate the net impact of each student who transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school to be approximately $5,000 in San Diego, $5,700 in Oakland, and $6,600 in the East Side district.

Just two weeks ago, In the Public Interest used the methodology Lafer developed last year to measure the impact of unrestricted charter school growth on the net finances of another school district—the West Contra Costa Unified School District, an urban district in the East Bay near Oakland.  Here are the findings of the new report: “Public school students in California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) are paying dearly for privately managed charter schools they don’t attend… Charter schools add $27.9 million a year to WCCUSD’s costs of running its own schools… That’s a net loss, after accounting for all savings realized by no longer educating the charter school students. As a result, the district has $978 less in funding for each traditional public student it serves.”

During last winter and into this spring, striking school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland drove home the consequences of California charter schools’ sucking millions of tax dollars out of public school districts. We listened as teachers described their despicable working conditions, the layoffs of desperately needed school nurses, librarians, counselors and social workers, and insultingly low pay that drives many teachers out of the profession. As a result, California’s legislature has been considering four bills to rein in out-of-control charter school growth across the state—a bill to return charter school authorization and oversight to the school districts where they are located; another to cap unregulated growth of charter schools; a third to prevent charter schools from locating outside the district that authorizes them; and a fourth to impose a five-year moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools.

As I write this blog post, Diane Ravitch reports that the legislature is no longer considering two of those reforms—capping the growth of charter schools and establishing a moratorium on the authorization of new charters.  However, still under consideration are two important reforms—a bill that “gives local school districts the sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the districts’ budget in the approval process,” and a bill to close “a loophole in state law that has let some districts boost their budgets by approving charter schools outside their boundaries.”

In 2009, to qualify for Arne Duncan’s $4.5 billion grant program, the Race to the Top, states had to change their own laws by removing caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  We are watching as, one-at-a-time, state legislatures grapple with the consequences of a privatized sector gone wild.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

The Public Good? Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It.

When she spoke recently at the Education Writers Association, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, swallowed whatever humility she has and presumed to redefine the role public education in our society.  Betsy loves freedom from government (even though she works for the government), and she can’t seem to discern any difference between what is good for the individual and what is good for us all together.

Here is what she told the nation’s education journalists: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said ‘families,’ not government… I am a common-sense conservative with a healthy distrust of centralized government. Instead, I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies… Margaret Thatcher said that government ‘has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves.’ There is no such thing as ‘public money.’ The Iron Lady was right! … Let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.” So Betsy defines public schools and charter schools and private schools funded with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts, and home schooling and maybe even Girl Scouts and piano lessons as public education.  It is pretty hard to see where she would draw the line.

In a recent Washington Post column, Adam Laats, a professor of education at the State University of New York in Binghamton, refutes DeVos’s new definition of public education as entirely impractical.  Laats looks back at education in the United States very early in the nineteenth century, when we basically had a public-private model, and shows why we replaced that old model with something that worked better—universal, publicly funded education:

“DeVos’s ‘new definition’ is exactly how American elites thought about public education in the first half of the 19th century… (T)he first generation of education leaders begged and borrowed from governments and private philanthropists to create schools for all, believing their project was of benefit to the American public. Back then, a public school was simply one that served the public; the funding usually came from a blend of public and private sources, and the schools themselves were usually run by churches and private charitable organizations, not government agencies… In a sense, that first generation of school reformers had a good excuse for hoping they could truly serve the needs of  all schoolchildren, rich and poor, without adequate public funding. After all, it was uncharted territory. They hoped they could rely on the ‘hand of charity’ and the ‘munificence’ of legislators to keep their public schools running.” “(E)ventually citizens all across the nation realized that only regular taxes could fill the holes in school budgets and offer predictable funding streams.  As a result, they established the tax-funding model we still rely on today—the model DeVos is so quick to dismiss… With the experience of two centuries of public education, we have no excuse to believe public education can be left to the whims of well-meaning philanthropists and the optional largesse of legislators. Our public schools are not ‘charity.’ Their budgets are not ‘munificence,’ subject to the whims of corporate benefactors, but rather the hard-won legacy of public funding for all, by all.”

The development of our public education system wasn’t merely a function of how our schools could be financed, however. Even before our society achieved a universal system of publicly funded schools, people were considering that education ought to serve a public purpose. In 1785, pronouncing public purpose and public ownership as necessary for America’s schools, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  Incorporating such a sense of public purpose, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school, but, as Laats points out, it wasn’t until the 1830s and the 1840s that states began to establish real public systems.

Public education has been conceived for generations as the the foundation for the formation of an American public. The education historian David Tyack defines the kind of public purpose for schools that Betsy DeVos, in her fervent individualism, seems unable to conceptualize: “The founders of the nation were convinced that the republic could survive only if its citizens were properly educated. This was a collective purpose, not simply an individual benefit or payoff to an interest group… The common school… was a place for both young and adult citizens to discover common ground, and when they did not  agree, to seek principled compromise.” (Finding Common Ground, pp. 1-2)

In 1915, the education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in the voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a commitment to education’s collective purpose in a letter to his children: “I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are.  For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

In a stunning 2009 letter he sent to President Barack Obama and published widely, the Chicago education professor Bill Ayers similarly defines the collective purpose of public education: “Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matter, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other.  What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”  Lacking nuanced thinking, Betsy DeVos limits herself to the full development of each.

We have not achieved justice in our public system of education. But critics advocating for improving the public system continue to believe a universal public system is the only place where equity and access can be protected by law. Realizing that justice is, by definition, structural and systemic, with a society’s laws and primary institutions the mechanisms for distributing opportunity, the Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned a prominent 2009 education reform program at the same time he defined universal education as a moral imperative and the only possible path to equity: “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” (December, 2011 Town Hall, Schott Foundation for Public Education)

Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman concisely identifies the flaw in the kind of schooling Betsy DeVos would prefer—a marketplace of increasingly privatized educational alternatives to the public schools (but, of course, all publicly funded): “As more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business…. a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.”

Writing about charter schools specifically, New York professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine condemn our society’s anti-tax, anti-public ethos: “Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? , p 87)

With Betsy DeVos, however, it all comes down to freedom, which she refuses to consider might possibly be enhanced by a legal system designed to protect each person’s rights. Instead Betsy believes strongly in freedom FROM government. Public commitment formalized in the social contract is too burdensome for Betsy DeVos. The American way, in DeVos’s system, has to do with individual freedom to compete and prosper.

Which brings us to the extremely lucid formulation by the late political theorist, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Charter Schools Undermine the Public Good—in Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania

This week’s news has brought additional evidence for growing public condemnation of the charter school sector—the abysmal record in Louisiana of the federal Charter Schools Program, along with the operation of charters in two states where the sector has rapidly grown: Michigan and Pennsylvania.  These investigations by the press explore financial waste along with disappointment for families whose charter schools promised more than they could deliver.

In Louisiana

This week Jeff Bryant explores the role of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) in  Louisiana, and most particularly, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where federal money helped underwrite the Shock Doctrine eradication of a public school district as it was turned over to a mass of privately operated charter schools. The Network for Public Education (NPE) has been tracking alarming lack of oversight over two decades in the federal CSP, which since its inception has awarded $4 billion to underwrite the startup and expansion of charter schools across the states.  NPE’s report earlier this spring explored the CSP’s overall record: a third of the schools it has funded never opened or eventually shut down.  Since the report was published, NPE has been releasing the state-by-state record of the CSP grants.  Here’s what happened in Louisiana.

Bryant examines some of the now-closed charter schools opened in 2006 with a $24 million Charter Schools Program grant from Margaret Spelling’s U.S. Department of Education, followed in 2009 with a grant by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education for $25,576,222.  In Louisiana, 110 charter schools opened with federal CSP funding between 2006 and 2014. Fifty-one of those schools (46 percent) are now closed.  In Louisiana alone, $23,819,839 of in federal CSP money has been spent on schools that either never opened or have  shut down.

In biennial investigations dating back to at least 2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has condemned oversight of the the federal Charter Schools Program.  Bryant describes the OIG’s 2018 investigation of CSP grants to Louisiana: “This time Louisiana was included in the audit because it was the state with the highest ratio of closed charter schools to total charter schools. The audit found charter schools in Louisiana that received federal money and then closed likely had widespread violations of federal laws and regulations for closing out their grants, disposing of property purchased with federal funds, and ensuring student information and records had been protected and maintained.”  Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education responded to its own OIG report by claiming additional oversight would interfere with the purpose of the grant—to stimulate innovation in which some schools would naturally fail—and would be an intrusion into the state’s right to oversee its own federal grant: “(T)he Department… stated it ‘did not consider charter school closures to be a risk to federal funds’ and that OIG’s recommendations ‘would be inconsistent with the federal role in education.'”

In Detroit

This week For Chalkbeat, Koby Levin explores the absence of operational transparency in Detroit’s charter school sector. Many of Detroit’s charter schools operate for-profit in a state where the charter school sector is poorly regulated: “(I)n Detroit, a city with an infamously troubled school landscape, dozens of charter school board meetings are hard to find or poorly attended—if they happen at all.  Even finding the meeting times can be difficult.  When a Chalkbeat reporter called to inquire about the board meeting at Covenant House Academy, the person on the other end of the line said, ‘I don’t have that information,’ and quickly ended the call.  David Ellis Academy did post its meeting schedule online, but the April meeting was set for Easter Sunday. It was canceled without notice. These schools had not broken the law. But critics view such incidents as proof that charter schools in Detroit, which bring in more than $350 million from taxpayers for the 36,0000 students they serve each year, aren’t doing enough to engage the community… A Chalkbeat review of charter school meetings in April found that they often aren’t well-publicized, that citizens who show up often find that the meetings have been canceled; and that few families and other members of the public attend… Unlike traditional districts, charter schools don’t have to hold a minimum number of annual meetings.”

Do open school board meetings really make a difference?  With an elected board of education in a public school district, citizens can ask questions, and when problems arise, the potential for democratic oversight is built into the system. Charter school governance and operations are less accessible, especially when boards are contracting with management companies whose purpose is to make a profit. And the board meetings also might give parents a clue when serious problems exist. Levin reports on Detroit’s Delta Academy, for example: “The sessions can be dry, but they are critically important: Last June, a charter school board approved a nail-biter of a budget for the coming school year despite the school’s empty coffers and numerous signs that it was failing its students. No one sounded a public alarm, and the school—Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice—closed abruptly in September, forcing students to scramble for new schools three weeks after the school year began.”

In Pennsylvania

Steven Singer, a teacher-blogger in Pennsylvania’s Steel Valley Schools, details exactly how Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding charter schools is decimating his local school district’s budget—and depleting public school district budgets across the state. Pennsylvania law prescribes that a child leaving for a charter school carries away from the public school budget the entire amount that district spends per-pupil.  Singer adds that, “the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools,” but that former Governor Tom Corbett cut out the reimbursement as part of a 2011 state budget cut.  Without tying special education funding to the real costs for serving children with a range of special needs, Pennsylvania also subtracts from the public school budget and sends to charter schools a flat amount for each special education student. The incentive is for charter schools not to accept students with the most serious disabilities and to leave those expensive-to-educate students in the local public schools.

Singer explains: “I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization. Steel Valley Schools have a proud history. We’re located (in part) in Homestead—the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.  But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.  It’s charter schools, vouchers schools, and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall… Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?  No… It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.”  While Steel Valley lost $9,731 for each non-special education student exiting for a charter school in the 2013-14 school year, in the current 2018-19 school year it lost $14,965.  For a student in special education in 2013-14, the district lost $16,803 per student exiting to a charter school, in the current 2018-19 school year, it lost $32,809 per student.  Singer adds: “Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead.  The costs of running our buildings, electricity, waster, maintenance, etc. are the same.  W just have less money with which to pay them.”

Singer concludes: “All of this has real world consequences in the classroom.  It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. it means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children—just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top… This nonsense has to stop.  The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.”

We cannot afford to destroy our publicly owned, publicly regulated, and publicly operated system of education by diverting public tax dollars to a charter school sector that is privately operated, inaccessible and unregulated.